Roster Turnover

Nov 28, 2017

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.


NJJ87 on November 28 @ 01:58 PM CST

Without dramatically improved QB play (I'm not at all sure that they have someone on the roster or recruited), along with evidence that this staff can coach (a significant question mark in my mind, especially on offense), none of the roster turnover or age/experience of the players matters - they'll still be in the bottom third of the Big Ten West.

Joe Edge on November 30 @ 01:55 PM CST

Do QB's play better on their own, or do they play better with a talented and experienced OL ?

jdapisa on November 28 @ 02:49 PM CST

I know you're joking about people continuing to read, but honestly this is my absolute favorite kind of story you write. Nobody goes into detail on roster construction like you do and it's one of the reasons I check this site every day.

A roster comment: I think for me to agree with your theory that playing these young guys early versus saving them for a RS senior season, you would have to accept that Lovie will continue to recruit classes like he did in 2017. I am hopeful but not confident this will happen. If he doesn't, I see a good 2019 and 2020 followed by another nosedive.

alotofpeoplegotoschoolfor7years on November 28 @ 03:12 PM CST

It looks like the defense will get there quicker than the offense. The line looks like it could be really good, which one assumes will make the linebackers and secondary look better too. Offense was Lovie's bugaboo with the Bears, and the offense was painful to watch this year without question. I thought the o-line was ok given its youth, but as NJJ87 noted, the QB play needs to improve. What does the transfer market look like in that regard?

Groundhogday on November 28 @ 03:45 PM CST

There goes Pat Nelson. Down to 3 Beckman recruits.

Groundhogday on November 28 @ 04:01 PM CST

The 2015 debacle class is the major reason for our current situation. These are guys who should be seniors and redshirt juniors in 2018. We took 7 Jucos, 6 of whom contributed little and are gone. Five high school recruits transferred out. And of the remaining guys (out of 24), only two are expected to compete for starting roles. And this was supposed to be Beckman's best class, when his staff was established and before all of the Simon C. controversy.

2018 - Important contributors

  • Jamal Milan
  • Cameron Watkins

2018 – reserves (many are considering a transfer)

  • Dre Brown
  • Trenard Davis
  • Julian Jones
  • Reggie Corbin
  • Sam Mays
  • Caleb Reams
  • Sean Adesanya
  • Adam Solomon
  • Frank Sumpter
  • Justice Williams
  • Zeke Martin

Gone – High school guys

  • Patrick Nelson **2 year starter
  • Gabe Megginson
  • Ke'Shawn Vaughn
  • Jimmy Fitzgerald
  • Desmond Cain

Gone – Juco guys

  • Andrew Davis
  • Zach Heath
  • Connor Brennan
  • Henry Enyenihi
  • Jordan Fagan
  • Ainslie Johnson

HiggsBoson on November 28 @ 05:01 PM CST

Translation: Lovie will soon not have the excuse of somebody else's players for the results on the field. Robert, have you considered what to use for an excuse when it's all Lovie's guys and we're still struggling to get to 3-9?

I haven't seen any sign that this staff can recruit at an elite level, and that will only get harder as the bad seasons build up, nor have I seen much ability to adapt to personnel or to develop players, so how are they going to get better? Older isn't enough. Players on other teams also mature.

Lovie isn't going to be fired, but I'm feeling pessimistic enough to expect the rebuild to start over once he retires at the end of his contract. I'm not yet convinced that Illinois could swap rosters straight up with Alabama and be competitive in the B1G West with this staff. And, sad to say, that's about where I was re: John Groce and the Jordan/Pippin Bulls in their prime.

Time to write about basketball. Underwood, at least, seems like he wants to compete.

Illinimac68 on November 29 @ 02:39 PM CST

Players on other teams mature while the juniors and seniors ahead of them play. When Lovie's players are juniors and seniors is when you'll be able to compare apples to apples.

HiggsBoson on November 29 @ 06:31 PM CST

Assuming they won't join the transfer tsunami. And if they don't mature for 2-3 more years, that's at least 2 more years of beat downs. Which won''t help recruiting.

Illinimac68 on November 30 @ 11:41 AM CST

Or they could all get malaria or be picked up by INS or flunk out.

illiniranger on November 28 @ 10:52 PM CST

There’s a triangle of talent + right scheme for opponent + experience = success

Just because you have the one does not mean you have the others. A 30 senior roster played pretty poorly most of 2016. Roster turnover means little if we can’t put all three elements together.

Looking at on field product and current 2018 recruiting class, methinks we are off schedule in building a sustainable program (though perhaps a reasonably good team in 2020).

HiggsBoson on November 29 @ 06:24 PM CST

The seniors didn't play well under Lovie and staff, Yet somehow as juniors they won as many games as Lovie has total in two years

steveinseattle on November 29 @ 12:12 AM CST

So Lovie is Creaning people left and right. Okay, but we can only bring in so many other guys on an already paper-thin roster. Next year is going to stink on ice on offense as well. There's no getting around it: McGee's offense relies too much on the QB to make plays by himself.

The defense will start to be decent, but we're going to lose a lot of games next year because we won't move the ball worth a damn and the defense will get tired by the 4th quarter. With the depth that we don't have, Heaven help us if anybody gets hurt (which happens a lot under this staff).

2019 maybe we get something.

HiggsBoson on November 29 @ 06:28 PM CST

Add Odenigbo to the list. Wouldn't surprise me if there are more.

illinitrueblue on November 29 @ 10:37 AM CST

I dunno, Robert. I have relied on you to assuage my fears about this program and Lovie. But this is turning into an unmitigated disaster, by anyone’s definition. It’s hard to see any improvement coming for next year and with recruiting in the dumpster, any light at all for the future. I really thought Lovie would bring a significant amount of stability to the program. Man, if this is stability, I’d hate to see what instability looks like. I’ll keep on hoping, but really without much enthusiasm. Thanks for your efforts.

neale stoner on November 29 @ 07:55 PM CST

Take a deep breath. Assess after the second signing day, and then again next season. Panic and/or despair at this point are very premature.

Bear8287 on November 29 @ 10:56 PM CST

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.

So Robert, if we were to go across all of the B1G football programs and throw all of the 20 and 22 year old players into a weight room for a contest, you'd expect the 20 year old players to hold their own? Physically, who would be more likely to be able to hold up in the NFL the 20 year old or the 22 year old? (Forget the experience, how about an 18 year old? By the way, there's also a reason why you don't see 18 year old pitchers in the majors. Physiological changes that still occur over the next 4+ years significantly better enable them to last across a long MLB season.)

You expect across the B1G that in general a 20 year old (junior) with two years of playing experience is just as good as a 22 year old (rs-senior) with two years of playing experience? What about when that rs-senior was recruited to a program like tOSU or PSU or UM?

Looks like we just might get a chance to run that experiment in 2019...

My expectations for 2018 are about the same as they were for 2017; 4 wins would be a really good year for that team.

Hey, someone told me that the Illini football season is over and that the basketball season is underway. Was there a basketball game last night?

Gary48 on November 30 @ 01:47 PM CST

I'm all in on your logic, Robert. If we can emerge from Spring ball and the Summer with a real starting QB I think bowl eligibility Is a reasonable expectation.

Joe Edge on November 30 @ 02:01 PM CST

I'm not so sure about any bowl eligibility, but I could see 4 to 5 wins in 2018...

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