Jul 3, 2017

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As I'm writing these posts for The 90 Illini, I keep stumbling over how young this team will be. I know I've said that a dozen times already, but my reaction is the same every time I stumble over some additional statistic. Today's statistic: experience by class.

This post began as a lead-in to the next 90i post, but it got so long that I decided to ditch that lead-in and just make it a stand-alone post. I recently had to adjust my 90 Illini list after MJ McGriff and Tre Nation left, which meant that I was removing two redshirt freshmen, which led me to take another look at where we stood class balance-wise. The last time I had one of these "I know I've said this before but we are REALLY young" moments is when I tweeted that of the 77 scholarship players on the roster, 55 were underclassmen and 22 were upperclassmen. That changed a bit with McGriff and Nation leaving (plus Australian punter Blake Hayes joining as a true freshman), so the new numbers there: 76 scholarship players; 22 upperclassmen, 54 underclassmen.

But for some reason I don't think even that tells the story accurately. Lovie went REALLY young by the end of last season, playing a lot of the true freshmen. And we had several players on the field in 2015 who were "trues" - true freshmen and sophomores who skipped right past the redshirt and found the field. So while some programs will not only be heavy on upperclassmen, they'll be heavy on redshirt juniors and redshirt seniors, 4th and 5th-year players who are the lifeblood of every single successful college football program.

So where do we stand redshirt-wise? How many 5th-year players will we toss out on the field? Let's do a roster breakdown like that. Redshirts vs. "trues". (One note: I'm applying the same logic to Juco players - Sean Adesanya came in as a one-year Juco with "4 years to play 3", and he redshirted his first year, which means he'd be a "redshirt junior" this season. If a Juco played right away (and skipped their possible redshirt year, they're a "true senior")

5th-year Seniors (6): Crawford, DiLauro, Dunlap, Echard, Fagan, Foster
True Seniors (2): A. Hayes, Turner
Redshirt Juniors (11): Adesanya, Allegretti, Crouch, Dudek, Hylton, James, McGrew, McLaughlin, Odenigbo, Roberts, Watson
Juniors (3): J. Jones, Mays, Phillips
Redshirt Sophomores (13): Brown, Corbin, Davis, George Jr., Martin, Megginson, Milan, Nelson, Reams, Solomon, Sumpter, Watkins, J. Williams
Sophomores (6): S. Green, Hansen, Harding, Jackson, Oliver, Thieman
Redshirt Freshmen (11): Abercrombie, Cerny, Clayton, Gavin, B. Jones, E. Jones, Kramer, McCourt, Palmer, Shogbonyo, Trainer
Freshmen (24): Adams, Bonner, Boyd, Carney, DeGroot, Dorsey, Epstein, Gay, C. Green, K. Green, B. Hayes, Hobbs, Knight, Lowe, Mondesir, Oladipo, Palczewski, Pate, Roundtree, Smalling, Smith, Thomas, B. Williams, Woods

Let's break that down by "years in the program". In other words, the redshirt sophomores and the true juniors were in the same recruiting class (as long as they weren't jucos), so since both are "third year" players we'll group them together:

5th year: 6
4th year: 13
3rd year: 16
2nd year: 17
1st year: 24

I'd say that's a fairly typical breakdown, especially for a program that has gone through three head coaches in three seasons. I mean, last year Lovie had a team with Ron Zook recruits on the field (Joe Spencer, Taylor Barton, Rob Bain), so when you have that much coaching turnover, you're going to have player turnover. Tre Nation was a big, plodding bulldozer tailback, and that just wasn't a fit for this offense, so he's off to seek carries elsewhere while Lovie adds tailbacks like Jakari Norwood (who stands 5'-9" and weighs 170 lbs). That happens in every coaching turnover, and our program has been nothing but coaching turnover for the last five seasons.

But while it's typical for the number to get larger as you go down the list from 5th year to 1st year, it's not typical for the upper numbers to be so low and the lower numbers to be so high. 41 of the current 76 scholarship players are first or second-year players. You can pretty much just stop right there - that's crazy young.

And we should probably discuss the 76 scholarship players as well. I've already started the football preview, and a big part of the opener is this statistic: with 76 scholarship players, this is more or less a probation year. Like, we have one year of self-imposed sanctions. Similar to when Ole Miss purchase a bunch of recruits and then the NCAA finds out and they self-impose "we will drop to 75 scholarships for one year to punish ourselves" (in hopes that NCAA won't impose any sanctions beyond that) - that's what we've more or less found ourselves doing.

It's not that this is Lovie's fault - it's just the resulting wake from the Beckman/Cubit thing. It more or less went like this:

  • Beckman was a juco guy; Cubit wasn't, Lovie isn't. So Beckman's last jucos were in the 2015 class, and several of them just graduated, and we didn't replace them with more jucos - we replaced them with freshmen. Which moved the needle way younger.
  • Beckman was fired a week before the 2015 season; Cubit was fired in early March - those things are going to lead to some recruiting upheaval.
  • Because of this, Lovie took over with 31 scholarships to give in the 2017 class, but the NCAA limits you to 25 per class. You can backdate some players to the previous class and add to that number (more than 25), but we had enrolled 24 the year before, meaning we could only backdate 1 and bring in 26 players. That meant that our maxed-out scholarship number was going to be 81 at the most.
  • And then there's attrition. We had some players who weren't scheme fits and left to find snaps elsewhere (MJ McGriff, Tre Nation), and some players who were arrested and kicked off the team (Holcombe, Lee, and Watkins). That drops you five more players in the spring and suddenly you're at 76 scholarship players.

Remember all of James Franklin's complaining in the media his first few years at Penn State, claiming he didn't have a full roster yet because of the (drastically reduced) JoePa sanctions? That's more or less what Lovie is facing this year. The most he could have on his second year roster is 81, and attrition has dropped that to 76. So we have a "sanctions" year. Imposed on ourselves by so much upheaval in 2015 and 2016.

Does that change the Lovie timeline for a rebuild? Not really. We've already discussed how this is more or less year 1.5 instead of year 2 (given that he was hired in March and hasn't been able to play a single recruit of his own yet). So this falls in line with that. It's not going to look like the Zook rebuild (newsflash - we're not going to the Rose Bowl in 2018), but maybe that's a good thing. I've only been asking for a slow and steady rebuild with the same schemes and the same coaches for about 10 years now (ever since Zook's construction project fell apart and we tried to fix it by changing schemes on a yearly basis), and that appears to be what we're doing. Get to the point where Tony Adams and Owen Carney are playing in this same defense their entire careers. And when they reach their senior year, they're joined by 21 other players, not 8.

OK now I'm at one of those points where I don't remember where I was going with this. I think I had just landed on "wow - FORTY ONE first and second year players" and started writing from there. I'm not sure how to close this out. I'll try one sentence.

This team will be very young but that's OK because it's helping Lovie overhaul the roster a little faster than normal so by the time the 2018 season rolls around (and especially 2019 and 2020) you will start to see dozens of players experienced in this system making an impact on the field and that means we'll hopefully be winning a lot of football games by then the end.


HiggsBoson on July 3, 2017 @ 06:12 PM

Didn't you write this same stuff about Tim Beckman's "rebuild"?

I'm not yet convinced that this is rebuilding so much as easing Lovie into retirement. I expected 6-6 last year with a minor bowl from Cubit, and at least that much from Lovie. But lots of talk, and no magic with a senior laden team. This year I expect no better than 3-9 and a weaker third year of recruiting, Hopefully I'm wrong and it really is rebuilding, which would be great if we have any fans still attending games by the time that happens.

MuckFichigan92 on July 3, 2017 @ 11:26 PM

I concur. I too thought last season should have been more productive. Leaning on the seniors should have garnished a bowl or one-game miss with 2017 being a... restocking year. I didn't see the rationale behind white-flagging it and going freshman-young. I hope two years of early reps pays dividends in 2018. Third year for nearly any staff is when everything comes together. If not, how long does a JW hire get with one-win increments? Youth infusion would indicate Lovie is focused on the long play over the short.

AHSIllini32 on July 4, 2017 @ 10:50 AM

Neither one of you was really being that objective then, especially you Higgs. You thought Cubit would've led us to a bowl last year? Come on now. And thinking lovie took this job just as something to do until retirement makes no sense. Lovie has more than enough money to retire after tb let him go. There's no reason for him to take a job that requires as much time and effort as a college head coach.

The reason you go youth last year isn't to "wave a white flag". It's with the idea that it makes your year two, three, four more productive because those kids have gotten some valuable experience.

I don't know if lovie will be successful but using last year as some sort of evidence that he won't because we had a "senior laden team" seems a bit ridiculous to me.

Bear8287 on July 4, 2017 @ 11:44 AM

Wow, Illiniboard first here? :-) AHS has some good points.

Maybe. Maybe, with a healthy Dudek that team has a shot at a bowl game?

Maybe because of yet another complete overhaul of the offensive system, the seniors didn't always look like the seniors we'd hoped they would play like?

Staying within Cubit's system, the team might have looked better but what would've been the point? Lovie didn't really get a chance to recruit last season and what better way to find out which young players he inherited have the best chances for success in the new system?

Alvarez didn't win until his 4th season at Wisconsin. Lovie inherited a better team to start, but maybe a tougher rebuild given how many players have graduated after his first season and not really being able to recruit until this year.

Anyone expecting instant miracles is likely setting themselves up for disappointment. It would be nice to see solid signs of player development and smarter play on the field. People probably also shouldn't freak out if the Illini don't beat WKU this year either...

Robert on July 4, 2017 @ 01:47 PM

I looked at every single P5 rebuild similar to ours in this post. For the most part, it was the fourth year when everything came together, not the third. I know that's been our experience (Tepper, Turner, Zook, and Beckman all bowled in their third season), but the big leap forward has typically been the fourth year nationally.

MuckFichigan92 on July 4, 2017 @ 05:26 PM

True, rebuilds or establishments take four. Several of those guys did crest in year three, e.g. Doeren, Kill, Bielema, Dykes, RichRod and Freeze. For the powerhouses, who may reload instead, year three is often the mark: Carroll, Miles, Holtz, Saban at 'Bama (year four @ LSU) and the dark lord Carr won it all in their third year.

MuckFichigan92 on July 4, 2017 @ 05:26 PM


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