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Illinois football’s optimism is justified

Illinois coach Tim Beckman believes his 2013 team was close being bowl-eligible if few plays had turned out differently. |

Illinois coach Tim Beckman believes his 2013 team was close to being bowl-eligible if a few plays had turned out differently. | AP

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NEW FACES IN CHAMPAIGN

Junior college

Geronimo Allison WR 6-3 185 Tampa Iowa Western CC

Tyree Stone-Davis DB 6-3 190 Philadelphia Pierce College (Calif.)

Tyrin Stone-Davis WR 6-3 195 Philadelphia Pierce College (Calif.)

Joe Fotu DL 6-3 275 San Leandro, Calif. Laney CC (Calif.)

High school

Chayce Crouch QB 6-4 220 Granville, Ohio Newark Catholic

Peter Cvijanovic OL 6-6 280 Concord Twp, Ohio East Coast Prep (Mass.)

Mike Dudek WR 5-11 180 Naperville Neuqua Valley

Jordan Frazier TE 6-5 240 Rogersville, Mo. Lighthouse Christian Acad.

Paul James III DL 6-3 240 Miami Norland

Updated: December 18, 2013 10:40PM



CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — How close was Illinois to going bowling in 2013?

Depends whom you ask.

Me? I’m in the not very close at all camp.

Tim Beckman? The Illini coach believes his 4-8 team was so close to a .500 record — or better — that he practically can reach out and touch the postseason glory.

“You take nine plays out of three games,” he said Wednesday, “and we’re out there practicing.”

Sure. Why not get crazy and replace all nine flubbed plays with Illini touchdowns?

Sorry, don’t mean to sound like such a disbeliever. Fact is, Beckman and his formerly downtrodden program deserve a little slack, if not a pat on the back.

If you just did a double-take at “formerly,” it’s certainly understandable.

But the fact is, the Illini are on a bit of a roll right now. It’s hard to tell how far away a winning season might still be, but they’re well on their way to a winning offseason. So, what’s going on?

Cubit is sticking around

Bill Cubit, the architect of the 2013 offense that guided Illinois football toward respectability, agreed this week to a one-year contract extension. Cubit’s contract now runs through the 2015 season at an annual salary of $500,000 — a $100,000 bump for the 60-year-old coordinator, who joined Beckman’s staff after being relieved of his duties as Western Michigan’s head coach following the 2012 season.

“It’s huge,” Beckman said. “Bill Cubit, we all know what he does as a head coach.”

The Illini offense went from terrible in 2012 to above-average — and at times quite explosive and exciting — in 2013. A unit that averaged 296.7 yards per game (119th nationally) pre-Cubit jumped to 426.7 (52nd) with him, and improved by 58 spots (119th to 61st) in scoring.

Cubit told the Sun-Times he has been contacted this month about both coordinator and head coaching jobs.

“I just wanted to see what happened,” he said. “[But] I’m a loyalty guy.”

Overall coaching continuity

Beckman confirmed that defensive coordinator Tim Banks will get another crack at curing what ails the Illini most, and that the entire coaching staff is expected to return.

“Continuity is huge in this game,” Beckman said.

Banks has said many times that the defense can make the sort of major progress in 2014 that the offense did in 2013, and he’ll be held to it. Ten starters return on defense, and they’re almost entirely Beckman recruits. Excuses won’t fly anymore after another round of spring ball and training camp.

“I don’t know where the recruiting went [under predecessor Ron Zook] … but I do think they’ll make tremendous strides as they continue to play,” Beckman said.

Recruiting success

Beckman looked and sounded like a man with a load off his shoulders Wednesday as he announced the signing of four junior-college players and five high school early enrollees, all of whom will be starting classes in January. Recruiting-wise, it leaves only six or seven players to be added by February’s national signing day.

“They’re all-around athletes,” Beckman said, “and they’re great human beings because they’ve graduated from high school early or have graduated from a junior college early.”

Who doesn’t love a great human being?

And anyone who enjoyed watching Steve Hull explode at wideout as a fifth-year senior has to love the coaches’ focus on that position. Hull, Ryan Lankford, Spencer Harris and Miles Osei all are done with college football, but the Illini have restocked with highly regarded juco receivers Geronimo Allison and Tyrin Stone-Davis, and early enrollee Mike Dudek from Naperville.

Both Allison (nicknamed “G-Mo”) and Stone-Davis are 6-3, offering the kind of length recruiting coordinator Alex Golesh said the Illini needed from their outside receivers. Golesh said both were among the coaching staff’s top four targets at the position. Beckman called Dudek a “phenomenal” player. All three will be expected to see the field immediately.

“Offensively, it was make it or bust — it really was — at wideout,” said Golesh, who also coaches the team’s tight ends. “We had to get some guys here early.”

NOTE: A weekend report that Illini running back Donovonn Young is planning to transfer was off base, according to Tim Beckman. “I don’t know where that came from,” the coach said. Young, who will be a senior in 2014, lost his starting job to Josh Ferguson and contributed little over the final seven games of last season. Both Beckman and Bill Cubit said he’ll be back, though.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @slgreenberg



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