I talked about it a lot last year - in Lovie's first year, he still had three Ron Zook recruits on the team (Taylor Barton, Joe Spencer, and Rob Bain). That was three head coaches ago. It takes a long, long time to turn over a roster. Or does it?
Consider this. In Lovie's first year he started three Zook recruits and then a bunch of Beckman and Cubit recruits. In his third season he might start... only four Tim Beckman recruits? His first year he's using players from a coach who was fired in November of 2011 and his third year he's only starting four players from the coach who followed that coach? Let's dig into this.
Using my 2018 depth chart from Sunday (which I updated with the App State grad transfer WR and the two transfers from today), and ignoring the 12th spot I put on the depth chart (fullback/blocking tight end on offense and nickel cornerback on defense), here's how the 22 starters break out:
- 4 Tim Beckman recruits (Nick Allegretti, Mikey Dudek, Jamal Milan, and Pat Nelson)
- 4 Bill Cubit recruits (Doug Kramer, Dele Harding, Tymir Oliver, and Jake Hansen)
- 14 Lovie Smith recruits (Cam Thomas, Mike Epstein, Louis Dorsey, Larry Boyd, Alex Palczewski, Vederian Lowe, Ricky Smalling, Shaedon Meadors, Bobby Roundtree, Isaiah Gay, Del'Shawn Phillips, Nate Hobbs, Bennett Williams, and Tony Adams)
In Tim Beckman's third season (2014) - keep in mind he had three full recruiting classes by then and I'm only pulling names from one Lovie class above - Beckman was still starting 12 Ron Zook recruits (Josh Ferguson, Jon Davis, Simon Cvijanovic, Michael Heitz, Alex Hill, Teddy Karras, DeJazz Woods, Austin Teitsma, Jake Howe, Eaton Spence, Earnest Thomas, and Taylor Barton) and then 10 guys from his first three classes (4 jucos, 1 transfer, 5 high school recruits).
My point: the speed at which this roster is being turned over to just Lovie recruits is fairly incredible. Beckman went into his third season starting one true sophomore (Austin Schmidt) and one true freshman (Mikey Dudek). Lovie will go into his third season starting 12 true sophomores (and possibly a few of his true freshmen?).
Ron Zook? In his third year Zook started four true sophomores (Vontae Davis, Juice Williams, Jeff Cumberland, and Jon Asamoah), one true freshmen (Arrelius Benn), and one juco (Antonio Steele) with the other 16 starters on the Rose Bowl team being Ron Turner recruits. There were contributions from lots of Zook recruits (Martez Wilson, Miami Thomas, Josh Brent, etc), but we're comparing starters to starters here, and that's how the numbers shake out.
Perhaps the best way to list this is by class. Zook and Beckman both had players in "their" first class who were recruited by the former coach (much like Lovie's "first" class which was 100% recruited by Bill Cubit. Guys like Doug Pilcher and Brit Miller committed to Ron Turner, signed with Ron Zook, and then started during the Rose Bowl season. So let's simplify this coach by coach:
+ Zook's third-year starters: 2 guys inherited in his first class, 5 guys from his 2006 class (1 juco, 4 HS), 1 from his 2007 class, 14 on-the-roster-when-he-arrived Turner recruits.
+ Beckman's third-year starters: 1 guy interited in his first class, 3 guys from his 2012 class (all HS), 4 guys from his 2013 class (1 HS, 2 juco, 1 transfer), 3 guys from his 2014 class (1 HS, 2 juco), 11 on-the-roster-when-he-arrived Zook recruits.
+ Lovie's third-year starters: 4 guys inherited in his first class, 14 guys from his 2017 class (12 HS, 1 transfer, 1 juco), 4 on-the-roster-when-he-arrived Beckman recruits.
And remember that this last list is incomplete. If Calvin Avery comes in and starts over Jamal Milan, take one Beckman recruit off the list and add another Lovie recruit. The Zook and Beckman lists are looking back after the season already happened - the Lovie list is a guess based on the current depth chart. So it could get even crazier like "3 inherited from the Cubit class, 3 on the roster from Beckman, 16 Lovie Smith guys".
looks left, looks right
OK, now that you've read this far (believe me, 95% of the people reading this gave up before getting here), I can whisper a little secret to the twelve of you still reading. Ready?
I believe this increases the speed of a rebuild. Now, that's not very noticable right now because the hole was so deep (even without turning to all the freshmen we would have been one of the least-experienced teams in college football with all the seniors graduating last year and 76 scholarship players on the roster, only 8 of them seniors), but I'm a believer in experience, not necessarily age. Age is important - 22 year-olds are better at football than 18 year-olds - but the main reason for that is the experience, both on the field and at practice, held by the 22 year-old. When you pull off the bandaid and turn to the 18 year-olds, they'll struggle mightily... but they'll also age quickly.
I'm not saying "don't worry - it will all turn around next year because we played so many freshmen this year". It will still be a long road. I'm just saying that rebuilds generally go through a long process of leaning on your upperclassmen while you bring the kids along, and Lovie didn't really have any upperclassmen this year (at least none that he thought he could trust), so if it takes 350 snaps on a college field before a player is ready (typically eased-in as a backup during mop-up minutes at successful programs), well, why not get those snaps out of the way for 21 true freshmen all at once.
Somewhere in the preview I wrote that Illinois would have the least-experienced team in college football this year, but with all the freshmen who might play, we'll suddenly have one of the most experienced teams as soon as 2019. That comes with drawbacks (when you lean so heavily on one class, are you just setting up for one or two successful years and then the whole cycle starts over?), but for now, I feel like we're on the fast-track to an experienced team. Band-aid off, open wound for sure, but hopefully it scabs over soon and we can really start healing.
Take Purdue for example. They played only four true freshmen this year (and none of them started). They brought in 11 transfers and won immediately (I said 4-8 or 5-7 in the preview - 6-6 is an amazing job by Brohm). But they still have to go through the growing process at some point. They still have to get snaps for the kids at some point. What they did was great for winning immediately, but they're still doing it with Hazell guys + transfers. At some point they'll hit a roster turnover speedbump. Everyone does.
Am I saying Lovie is on his way up while Brohm is on his way down? No. Not at all. Lovie did have a "play the experienced guys" season in 2016 and finished 3-9. There are reasons for that (no QB, etc), but still, 3-9 is 3-9 and Brohm is bowling.
What I am saying: every coach has to go through the roster turnover, and Lovie started that process five games into his first season (seniors to the bench, freshmen like Nelson and Harding and Milan into the lineup). Once the season was going nowhere with the 1-4 start, the youth movement began. And then, once he had his first recruiting class, it doubled-down in 2017. Tripled-down.
And now, hopefully, in the near future, those decisions begin to pay off.