This post grew out of a question from the comments under the last post. I keep talking about how we're somewhat having a "probation" season with the least number of scholarship players in Division I, but I haven't really explained how we got there.
Here's the question from the Excuses post:
How did we come to be in the state of "having the smallest number of scholarship players...in the country"?
Yes, from my research, we have the thinnest roster in the country. How did that happen? It's complicated.
Each year teams are restricted to bringing in 25 recruits. This rule is known as the "Houston Nutt Rule" - Nutt was famous for cutting players who weren't performing and then bringing in massive recruiting classes. To curb this, the NCAA put in a rule - you can only bring in 25 players per class. This is never a program for healthy schools - sometimes they can only bring in 15 players. But if you've had a lot of attrition, it can be a problem.
Now, there are some exceptions. Players fail to qualify academically quite often, so you can actually sign 28 players on Signing Day. It's just that by the time they enroll in the summer, you have to be down to 25 players. Which is tricky in and of itself - you more or less have to have a situation where five recruits might not quilify but you sign all five hoping that two don't. And if all five do, you have to tell two of them to get lost.
You can also "backdate" an early enrollee. If you only brought in 21 players in the previous class, you can "backdate" four early enrollees (players who arrive in January, either from Juco or by graduating high school early) and assign them to the previous class. You'll then bring in 29 players - 25 who count towards the current class and four more who count towards the previous class. Obviously, if your previous class was maxed-out, you won't be able to backdate any players in the current class, but if you have "spots" available, that's one way to do it.
With all of this understood, let's talk about how that has shaken out for Lovie.
When Bill Cubit took over as the full-time interim coach, he had to scramble a bit. 10 players had decommitted during/after the Beckman scandal. Cubit maxed out the class at 25 players, but only enrolled 24 (defensive lineman Izon Pulley did not qualify academically).
Cubit was fired, Lovie hired (had you heard about that?) and when those 24 players enrolled, Lovie entered his first season with, as I recall, 83 scholarship players. Cubit had maxed-out his 2016 class but after Marchie Murdock transferred to Iowa State and Izon Pulley didn't qualify, we were at 83. Let's follow the numbers from there.
After the season, Ke'Shawn Vaughn transferred to Vanderbilt, Darwyn Kelly transferred to Central Michigan, and Zach Heath graduated as a fourth-year junior and left the program (I'm not sure his knee would allow him to play football again). Combine that with the 24 seniors who graduated after last season and we were down to 56 scholarship players. So we should just add 29 players to get back to the max of 85, right?
Well, we couldn't because of the Houston Nutt Rule. We could only backdate one player (using Izon Pulley's "open" scholarship) to max out the 2016 class. So we backdated one of the early enrollees (could have been Phillips, Green, Carney, or Watkins) and then we could bring in 26 total for that class. Had the 2016 class only been 21 players we could have backdated all four early enrollees and brought in 29 players. But that wasn't the case.
So with 56 returning players plus a maxed-out class of 26, Lovie could at least get close to filling out our 85 scholarships with those 82 players. The NCAA restrictions prevented him from adding three more players, but 82 is at least decently close.
And then QB Dwayne Lawson didn't qualify - down to 81. Oops, Zarrian Holcombe, Darta Lee, and Howard Watkins were arrested and kicked off the team - down to 78. MJ McGriff transferred to Akron - down to 77. Tre Nation transferred to Austin Peay - now we're entering the 2017 season at 76 scholarship players.
That's fairly normal attrition (3-5 players every year). There are always guys like McGriff and Nation who saw the younger players in front of them and realized they'd likely ride the bench for a long time. When that happens, there's usually room to bring in more freshmen to replace them. That just wasn't the case for Lovie last year.
But it won't be a problem this year. Lovie only has eight seniors graduating, Which means staying under 25 won't be a problem. There are eight seniors graduating, nine current open scholarships (we're at 76 instead of 85), so he can bring in a class of 17. And then if any players decide to opt out after the season (with this many freshmen already starting, it will happen, most likely with some redshirt freshmen saying "I'm going to be behind this guy all four years"), that number will go up.
Please note that these numbers might be off by one or two. These items are not published, so scholarship numbers and backdates are just assumptions I'm making based on my obsessive obsession with Illini football. It's possible a walkon or two will go on scholarship. It's possible we did have other backdates available (maybe the 2016 class had some backdates, meaning the 2017 class had a few more?), but there's no real way to verify that (Lovie would likely decline to respond if I asked, as is his right),
But that's the answer to "why do we have the smallest number of scholarship players?". A scandal, decommitments and transfers, a maxed-out first class for the new coach (with a backdate) but still well short of full, especially after three guys (two Cubit recruits, one Lovie recruit) were arrested. If there were active sanctions somewhere (like the USC or Penn State penalties) then there would be another school in our similar situation, but I don't think there are any active NCAA scholarship reductions right now. I looked at Baylor (rocked by scandal) but it looks like they're at 83 scholarship players.
Which means we're more or less the FBS school on probation this year. To make matters worse, I believe we had 18 injured players sitting out for the Purdue game, meaning that we were down to 58 total available scholarship players. That makes things... nearly impossible.
I know, I know - excuses. But just go hand this generic roster to any college football coach:
20 true freshmen (I'm not counting the four who were/are injured - just healthy players available to play, even if they're currently redshirting)
9 redshirt freshmen
58 scholarship players available to play, 44 are underclassmen. Now go beat a Big Ten opponent. Good luck.
So that's a really long answer to a simple question. And I didn't even mention how Beckman was a Juco guy, bringing in 6-8 every year, and neither Cubit in 2016 or Lovie in 2017 relied on Jucos (each only brought in one), which left yet another hole. All ot these things contributed to Lovie Smith entering the season with 76 scholarship players.
Which, from my research, is the smallest number in the country. Did I mention that?