Ten Names You'll Learn In 2014
You probably know most of these names. If you're a recruiting junkie and a rabid fan, you'll probably know every football player, basketball player, and prospective recruit on this entire list. But for the casual fan, here's the ten names you might now know today but will definitely know one year from today.
1) Aaron Cosby
As you'll see over the next ten weeks, outside shooting will likely be the downfall of this basketball team. I still have hope for nine Big Ten wins and a tourney berth, but not having a go-to shooter is our Achilles heel. Big Ten teams won't let us get to the rim like UIC did, and when they don't, we'll have to make shots to win. And at last check, I believe we were 11th out of 12 in the conference in shooting statistics.
Next year, enter Aaron Cosby. He's sitting out this season after two solid years at Seton Hall. Solid years where he shot .377 from three as a freshman and then .400 from deep as a sophomore. When we need a zone buster next year, he's our guy.
2) TJ Neal
You'll know almost every name on the Illini defense next year. We played 27 guys in the rotation, and 25 return, so there will only be two or three names that you'll hear over the PA and say "who?"
But the name you'll hear a lot after hearing only a little is linebacker TJ Neal. He'll likely take over for Jonathan Brown at the Will linebacker spot, and the sophomore-to-be certainly looked the part in limited action as a freshman. He probably won't have a true breakout season until his junior year, but you'll hear his name a lot next fall.
3) Charles Matthews
Santa brought no presents on Cliffmas, but that won't ever stop Illini fans from peering up the chimney to see if the next great Chicago prep player is on the way. The name we'll obsess over in 2014: Charles Matthews. The 6'-6" shooting guard from St. Rita will be a five-star recruit and might even be a one-and-done player.
Will he play that one year at Illinois? Probably not. They never do. He'll probably go to Kentucky. But he might go to Illinois...
4) Justin Hardee
Of the seven major position groups - quarterbacks, tailbacks, receivers, offensive line, defensive line, linebacker, and defensive backs - five of the positions return nearly everyone from this past season (or in some cases, literally every player). The only two positions requiring an overhaul are quarterbacks (and we'll choose from two four-star recruits there) and receivers.
We do return two tight ends that caught 45 passes, but at wide receiver, we lose the top three in terms of receptions - STEVEHULL, Miles Osei, and Spencer Harris (plus Ryan Lankford who was injured halfway through the season). Which means we'll need to find four receivers to step up. That will likely come from three juco guys - Martize Barr, Geronimo Allison, and Tyrin Stone-Davis - but the leading receiver could very well be Justin Hardee. The hope is that he follows the AJ Jenkins model: promising freshman year, where'd-he-go sophomore year, and then breakout junior year.
5) Austin Schmidt
We lost one-and-a-half starters on the offensive line. Part-time starter Jake Feldmeyer at center and full-time starter at right tackle Corey Lewis. It's a stone cold lock that four of the five starters on the offensive line will be Simon Cvijanovic, Michael Heitz, Alex Hill, and Teddy Karras. Only right tackle is up for grabs.
And my guess is that true sophomore Austin Schmidt wins the job. It's rare for a true sophomore to win a starting tackle job - year four rule and all - but I think that Schmidt has passed guys in the class in front of him like Pat Flavin and Scott McDowell. I'd look for him to start at right tackle next year... and then start at left tackle in 2015 and 2016.
6) Jocelynn Birks
Curveball! Let's talk volleyball. Volleyball usually only reaches the radar of the casual fan if the team is in contention for a Big Ten title or if they reach the Sweet 16. And with nearly everyone returning from a Sweet 16 team this season, I think it's likely that Illinois Volleyball will reach the radar of the casual fan next year.
And they'll be led by junior Jocelynn Birks, a third-team All American this year as a sophomore. She, like, hits the ball really hard and makes it so people on the other team can't get to it before it hits the ground inside the lines which used to give us a side-out but now gives us a full point every time go Illini.
7) Clayton Fejedelem
Walk on, walkon. If you've read this blog for five years, you know of my affinity for walkons. The only Illini jersey I currently own is a game-worn Wisdom Onyegbule jersey. You've heard me go on and on about Onyegbule and Eddie Viliunas and then Peter Bonahoom and Ben Mathis. And next year you'll likely hear me talking about Clayton Fejedelem (pronounced FED-juh-lem).
Fejedelem didn't receive any offers in high school (despite Tom Lemming trying to get him one with this article), so he chose to attend St. Xavier University in Chicago, an NAIA school. After two years there, he decided to transfer to Illinois and walk-on. He first tried cornerback and did pretty well there in the spring game, recording eight tackles, two passes-broken-up, and an interception. So in his transfer sit-out year, he moved to Star, our hybrid safety/linebacker position. Expect lots of PLAY FEJEDELEM tweets from me this fall.
OK, so it's not a player, but instead an AAU program I pay attention to. What's talked about a lot is that the three players John Groce has landed from Chicago all played at Chicago Simeon (Jaylon Tate, Kendrick Nunn, and DJ Williams). What hasn't been talked about much is that all three played for the same AAU team - Meanstreets. I believe we have a good relationship there, which is why I pay attention when Chicago players choose Meanstreets as their AAU team. For example, Evanston freshman phenom Nojel Eastern is saying that his AAU decision will come down to Meanstreets or Spiece. Here's hoping he picks the Illinois AAU program Coach Parham has a good relationship with.
Oh, and there's another player we're kind of chasing from Meanstreets. One Charles Matthews.
9) Dre Brown
I can't make a list like this and not point to a football recruit. And as much as I'd love to point to high four-star kids like East St. Louis defensive end Terry Beckner or Providence Catholic wide receiver Miles Boykin, they'll likely end up elsewhere. They have for the past 91 years, so I'm not sure why that would change soon.
Because of that, I tend to concentrate on attainable players at positions of need. My number one target now that Jack Beneventi has selected Iowa: Dekalb running back Dre Brown. We're the only Big Ten offer so far (which isn't strange at all for a 2015 recruit), but I'm hoping he picks us before those offers roll in from the other schools giving him an early look (like Iowa and Boston College). He's been a high school starter since his freshman year, and his film makes him seem like a perfect fit for this offense. That, and I'm an Illinois fan. I always want to lock up verbals before other teams have a chance to see them on film. I'm that guy who talked to the girl as soon as she entered the room before she could see there were better options available.
That's a lie. I hid in the corner.
10) Darius Paul
Next season we'll need to replace both Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey. I think it's fairly clear what happens after Bertrand leaves: it's likely a battle between Aaron Cosby and Kendrick Nunn for the starting spot, with the loser of that battle still getting a ton of minutes (and Ahmad Starks getting some, too). But for Ekey's replacement, it's a bit more cloudy.
Is it Malcolm Hill? He arrived as a guard but he might really be more of a stretch four. Is it true freshman Leron Black? He's the rebounding presence we'll need, but he'll also be a true freshman. Is it Michael Finke? His game fits the Griffey/Ekey mold, but he probably needs strength and bulk for defense.
Put me down for Brandon Paul's brother. He's a little bit more of a bouncy, true four than the other guys, but he also shot 44 three pointers last year at Western Michigan (where he was the conference freshman of the year). If he can use that bounce and height (6'-8") to defend the power forwards of the Big Ten, I think he wins the starting job.
And then we'll all try to figure out a nickname after four years of saying BP3. He'll be #35, so DP3...5? Needs work.