I spend a lot of time wondering how I can best make this point. The list inside this post was compiled more than three months ago, but I haven’t found the right time to post it. Mostly because it’s something that can so easily be interpreted the wrong way. But hey, it’s 11:24 pm, and this is the first chance I’ve had to blog in four days, so let’s do this.
The topic: Zook’s recruits leaving and Beckman’s recruits sticking around. To speak of this subject makes one a wild Tim Beckman homer, so I guess that’s just what I’ll have to be today. I think it’s important that this information is out there, so let’s talk about it. This is that information: Zook’s recruits tended to leave; Beckman’s recruits – and yes, it’s still early – tend to stick around.
So let’s turn this into an unfair comparison. Let’s compare apples to, I don’t know, apple blossoms, and then let’s see where all of this lands. I’ve written about the 2006-2008 classes before, where nearly 50% of Zook’s recruits never made it to Senior Day. Now let’s look at how that has changed in the end of the Zook era and the beginning of the Beckman era.
Starting with the 2009 recruiting class until the day he was fired, Ron Zook added 78 recruits. Of those 78, 33 left the program. Since Tim Beckman took over, he has inked 54 recruits. Of those 54, only three will not be in uniform in a few weeks – Bryce Douglas due to an injury and Matt Domer/Tyree Stone-Davis did not qualify.
I’ll break that down in a bit, but first, let’s write that out graphically. In bold and italics are the players who left the team – bold because they left or were kicked off, italics because of some other circumstance (such as a career-ending injury). Here are those players in order of when they picked Illinois:
Lendell Buckner (left team)
Leon Hill (left team)
Greg Fuller (left team)
Joelil Thrash (left team)
Tommie Hopkins (left team)
Andrew Carter (medical scholarship after injury)
Bud Golden (transferred to Tennessee Tech)
Justin Lattimore (left team)
Walt Aikens (kicked off team after theft arrest)
Eric Watts (left team)
Akeem Spence (declared early)
Shawn Afryl (left team)
Chandler Whitmer (transferred to junior college and then Connecticut)
Mark Wilson (admissions issues, left team)
A.J. Williams (left team)
Ean Days (transferred to Georgia Southern)
Jay Prosch (transferred to Auburn)
Brandon Denmark (transferred to Florida A&M)
Darius Millines (kicked off team)
Houston Bates (transferred to Louisiana Tech)
Fritz Rock (left team)
Clint Tucker (did not qualify)
Henry Dickinson (medical scholarship after injury)
Jordan Frysinger (left team following arrest, now at
Dondi Kirby (did not qualify)
Darrius Caldwell (kicked off team)
Valdon Cooper (transferred to Georgia Southern)
Willie Beavers (did not qualify)
Chris Jones (arrested, kicked off team)
Daniel Rhodes (left team)
Jason Robertson (did not qualify)
TaJarvis Fuller (kicked off team)
Vontrell Williams (released from team)
Dami Ayoola (kicked off team)
Merrick Jackson (did not qualify)
Bryce Douglas (medical scholarship after an injury)
Matt Domer (did not qualify)
Tyree Stone-Davis (did not qualify)
Again, I want to re-emphasize this: this isn’t exactly apples to apples yet. The Zook players had four and five years in which to leave – this latest Beckman class has only been on campus for six weeks (although, to be fair, Zook lost a player in that timeframe when Chris Jones was arrested for assault his first July). The reason I listed all three Beckman classes was to show the number of non-qualifiers as well – this last class is when Beckman began to lose players because of that.
Still, even with all of that, given the overwhelming difference to date, the Beckman losses won’t be anywhere near the Zook losses. Zook lost 33 of 78. Once Beckman gets to his first 78 recruits, I’m guessing he might lose… 12? Given the rate of attrition of the guys he recruited, it’s likely to be around one third of the player losses that Zook experienced. Or look at it this way. Of those 33 players that Zook lost, 27 left before reaching their third year. Which means Beckman, entering his third fall, should have lost a lot of his own players by now. He simply hasn’t.
And I want to emphasize it one more time: Beckman has, in fact, kicked kids off the team for behavior and grades. All of them just happened to be Zook recruits. For the guys he hand-selected, he has yet to lose one to behavior or grades. Merrick Jackson, Matt Domer, and TSD2 didn’t qualify (and it’s worth noting that Merrick Jackson had “verballed” to Illinois but didn’t have a commitable offer – due to grades, I’m sure – and signed with a junior college on signing day), and Bryce Douglas had the medical issue.
I realize the folly of writing such a post at this time. For the next four years, when any of these Beckman players leave – and they will leave – I am certain to receive “I thought you said Beckman players were perfect” callouts. That’s not my point here, but that will be the takeaway. I get it, and I accept it.
My point here: the two recruiting philosophies of the two coaches appear to be exact opposites. Zook went after talent while taking academic and behavioral risks. If that meant some kids didn’t qualify, and some kids got arrested, and some kids flunked out, he simply replaced them with more talent. One need only to look at the NFL draft lists from 2008 through 2013 to see that Zook could spot and land talent. Best of any Illini coach I’ve seen.
Beckman doesn’t land nearly as much talent, at least going by star ratings. The three classes (for each) listed above are likely quite similar talent-wise – Zook’s recruiting had fallen off by then. But Zook’s first three classes were ranked much higher than Beckman’s first three classes.
What Beckman does seem to land, though, are four- and five-year players. At least that’s the trend. When Beckman arrived, in those six weeks before signing day, he added Monheim, Powell, Neal, Church, Hardee, Little, Bello, Svetina, Walls, and Bentley. And this fall, the team is going to lean heavily on Monheim, Powell, Neal, Church, Hardee, Little, Svetina, and Bentley, with Bello and Walls front and center on coverage teams. Nobody left. Nobody flunked out. If we were using the Zook averages, you’d have to pluck four or five of those ten guys off the list and replace them with underclassmen.
That’s why I keep coming back to this subject. Some people hear those names, and they picture them getting burned by Indiana last year, and they say “Zook recruited talent, Beckman doesn’t; the end.” I’m saying that throwing these guys into the fire when he arrived was the point. Take your lumps, keep everyone around, and eventually win. And once you’re winning, if you’re still keeping players around and still graduating 22 seniors instead of 10, you might have just built a program.
There’s no guarantee it will work. Pick any Indiana coach in the last 20 years and they’ll tell you that this was what they tried to do – recruit four year players, keep everyone around, build experience. And then Michigan State’s four-star defensive end runs right over your experienced offensive tackle and you realize that football is sometimes just purely talent.
But it’s also sometimes not talent at all. Ron Zook, with more NFL players than all but Ohio State in 2009, finished 3-9 in the Big Ten. If you keep losing players and keep plugging in underclassmen (and then losing that underclassman and promoting an even younger underclassman), it’s really hard to build a program.
You know what? I could have saved myself 1,500 words and just written this: By my count, Ron Zook inked 174 players to Illinois. 81 did not graduate. In his first 30 months, Tim Beckman has inked 54 recruits. Three did not qualify, and as of this writing, not one player has left.