I still have several more camp posts to write (including superlatives!), but this thought has been bouncing around in my head for a week and I need to get it out. That "hole" we dug with the Beckman investigation/Cubit extension - what's it look like now?
It was the main thing we all talked about for months, especially when Cubit got the extension. I'd say the common fan theme that day was this: "what a hole we're digging here. Cubit will get one more season, ruining a second recruiting class, and by the time the new AD hires the new coach after the 2017 season, we'll have dug a massive hole".
Then Whitman arrived and short-circuited everything (in a good way). Cubit went out the door on Whitman's first day, Lovie came in the door on his third, and the hole stopped getting deeper immediately. No longer were we worried about one more season with a lame-duck coach.
But there was still a hole. There was still a big ol' mess. From Mother's Day 2015 when Simon Cvijanovic took to Twitter until March 7, 2016 when Lovie was hired, we dug and we dug and we dug. Recruiting had experienced an uptick in the 2015 class and had started well in 2016 but then everything completely fell apart for 10 months. Recruits stopped verballing to Beckman, recruits were abandoning ship left and right (11 in all), and the Plan B recruits that Cubit was adding ended up ranking as the 73rd-best recruiting class nationally.
When I say that recruiting had started well in 2016 (pre-Mother's Day), I should probably give more detail. In fact, I should probably go through all of the details here so we can look at The Hole from all angles.
The class started well with running back Kentrail Moran, a 4-star tailback at the time. And with guys like Amani Jones and Drake Spears, it felt like the staff was adding pieces for the future. Fast-forward to Signing Day and 11 of those recruits, including Moran, Jones, and Spears, had flipped to other schools. The list:
Amani Jones (flipped to Iowa) - Played in all 13 games as a true freshman, second-string Will Linebacker on preseason depth chart.
Kentrail Moran (flipped to New Mexico) - Redshirted (likely an academic redshirt due to high school transcript issues).
Drake Spears (flipped to Western Michigan) - Played in all 14 games as a true freshman, slated to be starting Will Linebacker in 2017.
Tim Walton (flipped to Syracuse) - Redshirted, penciled in as backup linebacker going into this season.
Antonio Shelton (flipped to Penn State) - Redshirted, penciled in as backup defensive tackle going into this season.
Devin Singletary (flipped to Florida Atlantic) - Perhaps the most successful of any player listed, made several freshman All American teams after gaining 1,021 yards as a true freshman.
Tre Johnson (flipped to Miami) - Redshirted, slated to be backup OL for the Hurricanes.
Devon Robinson - Did not qualify academically anywhere, appears to be out of football.
Joshua Black (flipped to Syracuse) - Started 9 games at DE as a true freshman for Syracuse, slated to be their starter at WDE this season.
Juwuane Parchman - Did not qualify academically, went to Iowa Western (juco), appears to be out of football.
Trevour Simms (flipped to Missouri) - Played in all 12 games as a true freshman, battling for starting right guard spot at fall camp.
I think those players are a good representation of The Hole. Our program was an absolute mess from early May in 2015 to early March in 2016 (at least, more of a mess than usual), and the result of that mess was these 11 decommitments and the 73rd-best recruiting class on Signing Day. Some of these decommitments happened immediately, some happened when Cubit got rid of several assistants (like Tim Banks) after the season, and by the time Signing Day rolled around, we landed the class I deemed The Misfits.
This also led to a slow start to the 2017 class (already discussed several times here), but by this time last year, I'd say that all of the repairs were complete and Lovie could move forward without the "wow, Illinois is even more of a mess than usual" cloud hanging over the program. I wrote on Signing Day this year how jumping from the #73 class to the #43 class was a big deal for the future. Bill Cubit was likely going to bring in another class ranked in the 70's (his first recruit of the class, Ryan O'Malley, wasn't offered by Lovie and ended up at Army), so Lovie bringing in this solid class has certainly filled some of The Hole.
And when I say he shortened the digging, I really believe that. This was going to be a 20 month hole (Mother's Day 2015 until December, 2016 when Cubit's replacement would have been hired in the timeline we were all imagining). Whitman's quick fire/quick hire cut that in half.
Now, that doesn't mean we're finished digging. The current class ranks 65th nationally (54th if you go by average player rating), so if that sinks closer to 70th by the time it's complete, then we're digging a different hole. This is not "hurray - everything will be perfect now!". There's still so much work to do roster-wise.
But given what I saw from this freshmen class at camp (CLEARLY the best freshman class I've seen at training camp this decade), MAN was Josh Whitman's quick hook a big boost for this program. College basketball recruiting might be about attracting those three amazing players and then filling in around them, but football recruiting is about stacking class on class on class. 2015 was solid, 2016 was a hole, and 2017 was going to be a deeper hole until Whitman made the move. Again, there's no guarantee this works, but looking back a few years after "not ideal" and all of the decommitments, things sure look better now.
In other words, we don't know where this will lead, but at least we're not still digging.