What Is Happening
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.