Tim Beckman spent three seasons walking the sidelines in Champaign, one fewer than Kyle Flood did in Piscataway. The damage both did to their respective programs, while somewhat different in nature, was still significant. And both programs are still feeling the effects of their former coaches as they prepare to face each other on Saturday.
Both Beckman and Flood are gone, replaced by Lovie Smith and Chris Ash, respectively. Smith was preceded by, ironically, Bill Cubit. Stay with me on this: Cubit replaced Beckman a week before the 2015 season started and went 5-6. He was fired in March of 2016 when a new AD came on board and decided he wanted Lovie. Cubit, though, had been offensive coordinator for Greg Schiano at Rutgers. And he brought his QB son to RU with him. And in one of the stellar decisions by GS, he made freshman Ryan Cubit the starter. For one season, until dad left after the 2002 season. Got that? Six degrees of Kevin Bacon.
Smith went 3-9 his first year; Ash was 2-10. Both teams were pretty bad, although it was Smith who won last year’s meeting at High Point Solutions Stadium.
But who has been winning the recruiting wars? Both had limited time to do much with their recruiting in their first go round. Ash was hired in December of 2015 and, like Smith, could barely make a dent in that first recruiting class. Ash and Rutgers ranked 12th in the Big Ten; Smith and the Illini were 13th. Ash only took in 19 recruits, 13 three-stars and one four-star. Smith, on the other hand, pulled in 26 recruits, with 19 being three-stars.
In that first class, Rutgers had 10 New Jersey kids; Illinois only had three (of 26, remember) home-grown players.
With a year under their belts and a record at the school (sort of) to present to prospects, what happened with the 2017 class? Both schools moved up within the Big Ten....and are still right next to each other. Rutgers had the No. 9 class with the Illini right behind. RU signed 26 kids, Illinois 27. Sixteen of RU’s commits were from New Jersey; only a third (9) Illinois players stayed home. In two years, Lovie Smith has signed 53 players; that’s a ton. And a lot of them are playing. The Illinois preview notes point out:
Illinois has started more true freshmen than any team in the nation (13): DB Tony Adams, RB Ra'Von Bonner, OL Larry Boyd, TE Louis Dorsey, RB Mike Epstein, DL Isaiah Gay, DB Nate Hobbs, OL Vederian Lowe, OL Alex Palczewski, DL Bobby Roundtree, WR Ricky Smalling, DB Bennett Williams and DL Jamal Woods. Ball State is second with nine true-freshmen starters. No other team in the Big Ten has four or more.
The Illini have also played a lot of first year players, 20. They have also had 22 first-time starters in their first five games. Good or bad, Lovie Smith is going with youth.
When the two teams meet on Saturday, will youth be served? Will the veterans shine? And which “system” will prevail?