- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 5, 2014

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) - The Illinois signing class isn’t particularly big at 18 players. And packed with primarily two- and three-star recruits, it isn’t highly rated.

But second-year head coach Tim Beckman said Wednesday he hopes a group heavy on defense and receivers and peppered with junior college transfers will fill some of the holes on a team that went 4-8 in 2013. Illinois’ defense was among the Big ten’s worst, the team lacked depth and what it did have tended to be young. One of the team’s relative strengths - receivers - was thinned by graduation.

The junior college players include two defensive linemen in Jihad Ward (6-6, 295) and Joe Fotu (6-3, 275), linebacker Carroll Phillips (6-3, 225) and receivers Geronimo Allison (6-3, 185) and Tyrin Stone-Davis (6-3, 195).

“They’re brought in here, especially with the depth scenario that we have, so they can come in here and make an impact,” Beckman said.

The best players coming straight out of high school include two more receivers from Illinois, Malik Turner from Sacred-Heart Griffin High School in Springfield and Mike Dudek from Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville.

Recruiting experts don’t appear to be impressed. Rivals.com ranks Illinois’ class 11th in the Big Ten, ahead of only Purdue’s.

But the Illini have a potentially top-notch addition already on campus.

Quarterback Wes Lunt sat out 2013 after transferring from Oklahoma State. The Rochester, Ill., native isn’t a lock to take over for Nathan Scheelhaase, but he’s a strong candidate after starting games as a freshman for the Cowboys in 2012 before an injury.

And Beckman said the Illini could pick up more help on offense from Dami Ayoola, the 5-10, 205-pound running back dismissed by Beckman last September for an unspecified violation of team rules.

Ayoola carried the ball 26 times for 117 yards and two touchdowns as a freshman in 2012, and Beckman said he stayed enrolled at Illinois and has been paying his own tuition. The coach plans to decide whether to let him back on the team later this spring, but he’s already working out with the Illini.

“He has a second chance,” Beckman said. “He’ll be involved in the spring game. He’ll just have limited reps.”



National rankings (Rivals 71; Scout 68).

Best in class: Jihad Ward, 6-6 285, dt, Globe Institute of Technology (N.Y.)

Best of the rest: Malik Turner, 6-3 205, wr, Springfield (Ill.) Sacred Heart-Griffin

Late addition: Chris James, 5-11 185, db, Orange-Stark (Texas) High School

One that got away: Tyree Stone-Davis, CB, Pierce College (Calif.).

NOTE: The best player Illinois will add may not be among the signings. Quarterback Wes Lunt sat out last season after transferring from Oklahoma State.


Follow David Mercer on Twitter: https://twitter.com/davidmercerap

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