What Is Happening


Robert
Jan 18, 2018
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14 Comments

No, seriously, what is happening? Is the entire football roster transferring? Are we going to have any quarterbacks left? Should I try to walk on tomorrow? I figured I'd take some time here to write out my thoughts on what is happening.

First, this post is kind of "Part III", so you might want to go read my Roster Turnover post from November and then my Roster Turnover On Steroids post last month. If you don't want to read those (or you're out of free clicks), here's some highlights. From the first post:

+ 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 inherited 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".

The point there: Lovie didn't even have a first recruiting class and yet he's still tripling the amount of his own recruits that he's turning to in year three when compared to our previous coaches. It's insane roster turnover. Almost unprecedented.

From Part II:

Which is why I rebooted the "roster turnover" post to write all of this. With these transfers, things seem fairly clear: Zook got to the Rose Bowl playing mostly Turner recruits. Beckman got to the Heart Of Dallas Bowl playing mostly Zook recruits and jucos. Lovie will enter his third season down to maybe 20 inherited players he'll still be using (out of the 55 or so who find the field on Saturdays).

Why so many transfers? Because Lovie is taking the youngest team in college football and... somehow making it younger. This is not a rebuild - it's a complete and total reboot.

And that number, +/- 20 inherited players, keeps dropping. Jeff George Jr. and Chayce Crouch announced that they were leaving (George to transfer, Crouch says he's "hanging up his cleats"). So make that 18 inherited players. And I've heard of three other players who are likely not returning this spring, so by the time the new roster comes out, that number might be 15.

Which is insane. I'll put it in terms of my 90 Illini lists. Each year when I get to the top-50 of "most important Illini players" I say that these 50 are the players you will regularly see on the field. A two-deep of 44, plus a few extras, plus the kicker-punter-longsnapper. If I were to list the number of inherited players on this Top 50 by year three, it would be something like this:

  • 2007 (Zook's third season): 37 inherited players, 13 recruits
  • 2014 (Beckman's third season): 34 inherited players (he used more jucos than Zook), 16 recruits
  • 2018 (Lovie's third season): 16 inherited players, 34 recruits

The thing that makes that number even more insane is that Lovie's entire "first class" was inherited. So that number (only 16) comes from a pool of names 24 players larger than Zook or Beckman's third seasons. And even with that he's using less than half of what his predecessors are using. Those "34 recruits" I'm listing on Lovie's 50? Pretty much the entire 25-man 2017 class plus 8-10 recruits in this 2018 who will likely be in the two-deep.

Again, these numbers are approximate because we don't know if, say, incoming juco Nick Walker or inherited cornerback Evan Jones will be Nate Hobbs' backup at corner (or whatever). But with my best guess, with all these players leaving (many getting a straight up "I have a 2017 guy and a 2018 recruit ahead of you right now" answer from the coaches), we're down to around 15-18 inherited players still part of the rotation in Lovie's third season.

So to me, the answer to "what is happening?" isn't what you're going to see in all of the stories written this spring. It's not really a "Jeff George Jr. and Sam Mays can't stand the coaches and want out" (although I'm sure many of them "can't stand the coaches" when they're left to rot on the third string). I think the story here is that there's a massive divide in the locker room between Beckman/Cubit players who aren't getting the opportunity to play and Lovie players who are. Those Beckman/Cubit players, seeing the writing on the wall (or just being flat-out told by the coaches that they're fourth on the depth chart) are all choosing to leave.

Negative Norm: "This is a disaster. We're completely screwed on depth yet again. One damn injury at a vital position and we're screwed. We took perhaps the youngest two-deep in college football in a decade and we might somehow make it younger. And we can't fill all of these scholarships either (we're WAY past the max limit of 25 at this point and as each player leaves that's another one we can't fill), so we're going to go into ANOTHER season where we're nowhere close to the NCAA limit of 85 scholarship players. Yet another year of self-probation."

Positive Polly: "Jeff George Jr. wasn't ever going to be a fit for the 'run the ball with the QB' offense Lovie wants, Sean Adesanya had been passed up by four true freshmen (Roundtree, Gay, Carney, Woods) last season, so why would they stick around just to stand on the sideline? Lovie looked at his cupboard when he arrived, saw that everything was labeled 'MAC-level talent', so now he's going to bring in three classes of 25 (when he originally only had 9 to give this year and 14 to give next year) so that he can get some talent in here as soon as he possibly can. We can talk about losing depth, sure, but I don't think we've lost anyone who was a lock to start next season. Players leaving who weren't going to play is a non-issue."

Where do I land? You know me - I'm a depth junkie. I believe that several injuries at one spot can kill a team. I always use post-Pete Carroll USC as my example. They started to have defensive line issues yet they were limited to 15 scholarships per class by the Reggie Bush sanctions and couldn't address it right away (they had to wait until the next class). Then they had a few defensive line injuries and it was over. This massively talented team with 5-stars everywhere yet they didn't have any defensive line depth. True freshmen and walkons were playing on the DL and teams were just attacking and attacking them at this weak point. With no depth, there was nothing they could do. 12-win seasons became 6-6 seasons mostly because depth is everything and falling to 68 scholarship players is death.

That's what scares me about what is happening right now. Sure, we're not losing future All Big Ten players, but we're also putting ourselves in "two injuries at that position and the season is over - we'd have to play a walkon" situations. The further that number gets from 85, the more you're susceptible to losing a whole season because one position falls apart and opponents feast on that single weak spot.

So yes, maybe Dele Harding is the starting middle linebacker these next two years and Tre Watson wouldn't play much next season. But I'd love to have him there if Harding got hurt. Wide receiver? Man, I'd love to have Dom Thieman around for depth until the young guys are ready. I get why they would leave in search of snaps, but man, we're putting ourselves at risk.

Now, if Lovie Smith were allowed a rebuttal here I'm sure he would say "I was given six years to fix this and this is the best way to go about it. Replacing MAC talent with Big Ten talent is task #1, 2, and 4. I'm not trying to fix it with 20 jucos like Tim Beckman, I'm not trying to fix it with 7 senior transfers who will be gone in a year, I am one by one replacing not-Big Ten players with what I believe to be Big Ten players - 25 last year, 25 this year, hopefully 25 next year."

(And yes, we could then argue whether he's actually bringing in Big Ten talent, but that would just send us down a long back and forth. My point: Lovie would say this is immediately necessary so he shoots players straight when they ask about the depth chart and future potential playing time.)

I'll end by repeating something I said in Part I: when you go this young, it does sometimes accelerate the rebuild on the back end. When you turn to this many freshmen and you give them this many snaps so early, you do get a wildly experienced team by 2019 and 2020. Most coaches wouldn't do it because, well, the season looks like this last season looked (completely overmatched by everyone), so you mix your guys with inherited guys and slowly get better each season. This method is a "take your lumps - man, are there lumps - but then get better rapidly" kind of thing. We're the youngest team in the last 10 years of college football in 2017? Then we're going to be one of the most experienced teams in the history of college football in 2020 with more than a dozen players who have 40+ starts. That kind of thing.

(And yes, that then brings up a 2001 scenario - great, you built the thing by year five, but it was just one team and now you have to start over.)

Anyway, that's what I think it happening. Josh Whitman and Lovie Smith must have an understanding that wins aren't important yet. We had eight seniors last year - lowest number in the country last year - and now might have... six returning seniors next year? These freshmen become sophomores but the overall roster might get... younger? Really?

Yes. That's what's happening.

Comments

Bear8287 on January 18 @ 02:27 PM CST

Good post Robert. This team is going to be sooo young (again). Huge questions at QB. It's going to be important to get the right OC into the system.

You point out what Lovie's doing. I agree that he's taking a long term approach to rebuilding the program and also believe that JW is going to stand behind him. Hopeful that this all is going to work out, but it's hard to see how the W/L record is going to improve significantly over last season's. Can only imagine what Memorial Stadium is going to possibly look like...

As for:

or you're out of free clicks

just get a subscription already... :-D

Groundhogday on January 18 @ 06:10 PM CST

I wonder how recruiting will hold up with a third disasterous season. How long can you sell the vision and playing time with the blowout losses piling up?

bkenny on January 18 @ 10:35 PM CST

The “playing time” sell expires in a few weeks when we close the book on this class. The vision sell is still there, but is certainly a lot tougher at this juncture. We need some Ws. Another 2-10 isn’t going to work. These are HS kids. The “yeah but...” isn’t going to work. It’s far too easy to pick a different hat. I’m not expecting miracles this fall, but we’re in desperate need of tangible on-field success, not just moral victories. If we don’t have any (2), what exactly is the sell to a 2019?

Norcal Illini on January 18 @ 06:48 PM CST

What's the latest on the OC hire? You would have thought Lovie had someone in mind when he let McGee go.

Sweetchuck13 on January 19 @ 09:49 AM CST

Looks like it's Rod Smith, former Co-OC/QB coach under Rich Rodriguez at AZ: http://arizonawildcats.com/coaches.aspx?rc=623&path=football

Solid spread option hire in my opinion. Hopefully he and Cam Thomas basically spend the entire spring together.

HiggsBoson on January 19 @ 10:09 PM CST

Some fat guy from the Dick Rod tree who looks like he'll stroke out if he had to climb a flight of stairs. I guess none of Lovie;s cronies would take the job.

Sweetchuck13 on January 19 @ 09:47 AM CST

I agree with Lovie's vision here - it does seem like the right way to ignore immediate results and build long-term. But I'm not sure I'd go so far as this:

Anyway, that's what I think it happening. Josh Whitman and Lovie Smith must have an understanding that wins aren't important yet.

Or at least I wouldn't go that far for 2018 (perhaps that was the understanding for 2016-2017). Lovie's safe through 2019 at a minimum, but I'm guessing that Whitman has set some expectations that wins need to start coming soon. As Groundhogday and bkenny point out, selling the "playing time" argument to recruits doesn't really cut it in year 3. You've got to start showing at least some positive forward momentum that this rebuild is working.

I still don't expect a bowl game this year, but I expect us to look like a legitimate B1G team. You'll know it when you see it. If that doesn't happen, then I'll start to get concerned about the rebuild and the Lovie experiment in general.

Groundhogday on January 19 @ 11:07 AM CST

I still don't expect a bowl game this year, but I expect us to look like a legitimate B1G team.

I'm not sure it is reasonable to expect a competitive team given our extreme lack of depth at certain positions and overall inexperience. And yet, it IS reasonable to expect a competitive team in Year 3 of a rebuild. Rock meet hard place.

Sweetchuck13 on January 19 @ 11:54 AM CST

Completely agree - which is why it's hard to throw out standards like "we need to see X wins", etc. As ridiculous as it sounds, it's sort of an eye test that we can see the building blocks of a really strong program. We'll make young mistakes, but we've got to start seeing progress.

Bear8287 on January 19 @ 01:14 PM CST

... and so here we are. Gotta beat Kent St. and Western. Go up to Chicago to play USF then 9 conference games. It's not hard to imagine another 2-10 season, yet it seems like the Illini need to win at least 2 conference games this season. If I had to pick one, maybe Minnesota at Memorial Stadium looks like a decent shot. Another one?

HiggsBoson on January 19 @ 10:05 PM CST

I'm still waiting to see any sign of this "vision" Lovie supposedly has, but the window is rapidly closing on whatever recruiting appeal he has, and another bad season should finish the deal. Meanwhile everybody and their dog is transferring away. My guess is, Lovie's ceiling is 3-9, he sticks around to snarf up every dollar possible then retires at the end of his contract having never sniffed a bowl or a winning B1G season. If Underwood doesn't have some success by then, we could be looking at replacing Whitman, too. Or reclassifying to whatever division Wash U is in.

illiniranger on January 19 @ 11:02 PM CST

The “we’re changing the culture, come be a part of it!” recruiting sales pitch has a limited shelf life. Might get some juice from that squeeze one more recruiting class. After that you need to be winning some games or kids think they are joining a sinking ship.

So, we need to win some games this year and be competitive. I think we have to be returning so many players. Bowl game in ‘19 is kind of a guidepost to try and gain/maintain recruiting ability.

steveinseattle on January 20 @ 12:30 AM CST

Forget a bowl game in 2018. It’s not happening. This team will feature a better defense that will throttle the weak part of the schedule but still get crushed by the better teams in the B1G.

The offense will still struggle to do anything unless Epstein discovers a magic injury protection shield.

The most intriguing thing to happen was getting Corey Patterson on staff. If he can recruit at all in St. louis Year 4 night start to look like something.

illiniranger on January 20 @ 12:53 PM CST

Methinks we can look like Indiana next year offensively (and they run similar stuff to what OC Smith will.). They had some games against B1G teams where their O got throttled but they also put some points on the board against the lower tier teams like us and Rutgers.

I don’t think a bowl, but much more serviceable.

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