I feel like this message is getting lost. We're all excited about the freshmen, and the conversation centers around "we're going to be so good in a few years". But what's not being discussed enough: the mining operation which uncovered these gems.
Louis Dorsey makes a catch, or Tony Adams grabs an effortless interception, or Alex Palczewski opens a hole, or Bobby Roundtree makes a tackle, and we say things like "once these players have gone through the strength program and have 20 games under their belts, WATCH OUT". But I really think we need to talk about the recruiting discovery of these players. There are a lot of layers here so I should back up. Let's start with some things we've learned.
- The freshmen aren't just playing because Lovie is looking to the future. The freshmen are playing because they're better football players. Each week we seem to add another freshman to the offensive line and, when we do that, the offensive line play improves. This is not "we have two equal players here, and I'm looking to the future, so I'm picking the younger guy" (which you often see with rebuilds). This is "if you look for the 25 best players on the team, I think 15 of them might be freshmen".
- Most Illini fans follow basketball recruiting way more than football recruiting and, as such, often view it as "just land some four stars and you're all set". Football recruiting is a crapshoot. There are probably eight times the four-star busts in football than basketball. Part of that is due to the fact there there are 100 or so basketball four-stars and 300 or so football four-stars. But it's also that projecting basketball skill is fairly easy; projecting future football success is really hard. And that holds true even after college with college stars who bust in the NFL.
- This is not going to be an "ignore all recruiting rankings because Lovie's staff simply spots winners so who cares if Jakari Norwood is a two-star if Lovie wants him I want him" post. There's a reason we're all more excited about Calvin Avery than we are about Jakari Norwood. Rankings matter when projecting a full recruiting class.
OK, with that out of the way, let's talk about the freshmen who have made a big impact so far. If we were to list the ten freshmen who have made the biggest impact so far, I think I'd go with these ten (in no particular order):
There are ten other freshmen who have played - Carmoni Green, Ricky Smalling, Vederian Lowe, Kendall Smith, Jamal Woods, Marc Mondesir, Owen Carney, Dawson DeGroot, Isaiah Gay, and James Knight - but I'd put their contributions on the second tier while the ten above are on the top tier. Smalling is close to that list above (nine catches so far), but the ten guys above seem to have cemented themselves as certain starters (while Smalling and Green are, for now, the third and fourth receivers). Let's say that Bonner would be #10 on that list, Smalling #11, Green #12.
Here's the crazy thing. On that list above, only Larry Boyd and Mike Epstein, and somewhat Bobby Roundtree had high-major Power Five suitors. The other seven were all discovered under a rock. None were ranked very high, most of them looked like your average Illini recruit, and all of them have far outplayed their ranking. As in, the freshmen All Big Ten team might have six or seven Illini names.
As mentioned above, this does not mean "every player recruited by this staff will be awesome", but it should make us feel good about the way this staff recruits. If there was confusion as to why the staff only offered eight of the top-20 players in the state of Illinois, I think this gives us the answer. They wish to recruit nationally, and late, so that they have all of the necessary information on a recruit. If they lose a guy early, that's fine - they'd rather be certain in January than take a chance in March.
Why mention "late"? Because on my list of ten guys above, only Epstein, Boyd, and Adams verballed in 2016. The other seven all joined early this year just before signing day (or, in the case of Hayes, in the summer). While I was out there decrying the fact that we had to settle for all of these "plan B" kids in January after a great start to the class, well, the staff was landing seven four-year starters and several other certain contributors.
Now, part of that has to be luck. I was flipping around on St. Louis sports talk radio the other day and there was a discussion about the Cardinals (I have only basic knowledge of the Cardinals anymore so forgive me if I'm way off here). The discussion was on how the names who were supposed to carry the team coming into the season (Fowler, Wainwright, Grichuk) weren't the reason they were good at all - it was the unknown guys (Pham, Dejong, Weaver) who carried the team to 83-79. BUT, the host said, the Cardinals can't rest on that. Getting that much from Pham and Dejong was pretty much luck. It's great to know that the scouting staff can find hidden gems, but every team needs stars to win.
I think that's my approach to Lovie's recruiting. On one hand, I'm absolutely certain this was our best recruiting class since 2008 and so much of that has to do with the methodology: long-term evaluations, senior film is important, being certain on a kid in January is better than landing a higher-ranked kid in March. Just because half the Big Ten has offered a kid doesn't mean he's all that good - trust your evaluations above the groupthink (which, I should note, is the opposite of Beckman - Beckman would often offer as soon as the kid started to get their first Power Five offers).
On the other hand, it's not a guarantee. It's wildly encouraging, but there's a little luck involved. From my view, there's still no quarterback of the future, linebacker is a big concern after these juniors graduate, and every team needs an NFL-ready star at certain positions (QB, or WR, or RB). There is work to do to get us where we need to be. The coaches have identified those players - I'd feel so much better about the future if we had Quincy Patterson on board to be the QB and if we had Ayodele Adeoye all set to be the middle linebacker - but we haven't landed them. Add two plus, PLUS players (like a Calvin Avery) and there are enough pieces elsewhere to be really good in the future.
I know what you're thinking. I'm praising Lovie for picking through the highly ranked players and finding the true gems and then I'm turning around and listing highly-ranked players he needs to land simply because someone else says they're good. In a sense, yes, his staff has earned trust that their evaluations are really good. His class ranked 10th in the Big Ten but by the time it's all said and done I think it might rank somewhere around fourth or so. We'll have to see how other classes shake out at schools where everyone is redshirting, but for now, from what we've seen, this class is way, WAY better than the 10th-best Big Ten class. It's not just that they're playing early - they're really talented.
I guess I settle here: I feel like our recruiting floor is no longer a concern. From just one class of players, I think we can rest on the fact that this staff can identify talent that fits in their schemes. The main concern now - which is a good thing - is the ceiling. We'll have the players to compete - will we have the players to challenge for Big Ten West titles? Can we land that QB of the future? Maybe a tailback? The Kittners and the Mendenhalls who have made solid teams special?
This is not to say success is a lock. We might take these talented players and get out-schemed once they're older and experienced (see: Zook, Ron). But I think any Illini fan should feel really good about the roster construction going forward. After the first month of the season, the recruiting staff is hitting .422 with an OPS of 1.230. They're just freshmen, and they're already better than many of the players we brought in for the 2014, 2015, and 2016 classes. The future is bright.
Now if we could just land that four-star quarterback...