I keep several Illini spreadsheets (I just recently backed them up to the cloud because I realized that several of them only lived on my laptop and I wouldn't know what to do without them). The main spreadsheet I'm reviewing now: scholarship numbers. And the scholarship numbers are based on all of the rebuild numbers so let's just talk numbers for a bit.
Let's go back a year. At the end of the 2017 season, there were only 7 seniors, which meant there were only 7 scholarships available for the recruiting class. So how did we bring in a class of 25? Well, two players left before the season (MJ McGriff and Tre Nation), 16 players left after the season (from Megginson to Watson to Crouch to Sumpter), and we went from 7 available scholarships to 25 (actually it was 29 with a few scholarships open from the season before).
This season, there were eight scholarship seniors. Will we see another overhaul to raise the class to 25? I don't think so. In fact, the season has been over for three weeks and we've only seen two transfers announced (Adam Solomon and Zeke Martin, both fourth-year juniors who will graduate and not play a fifth season here). So if last year's class was 25, will this year's class be.. 10?
Here's the current numbers. Please note that there are many variables here, so these numbers will not be exact. For example, two walkons were put on scholarship last winter. Walkon rides are one-year rides, so both would need to be "renewed". Will they be? We don't know yet. We honestly won't know until training camp opens. I'm not saying that the coaching staff will hold the scholarships over their heads or something. I'm just saying that the coaching staff has a plan to fill their 85 scholarships, and we don't know that plan, so these numbers won't be exact. They might want to put a longsnapper on scholarship. They might know of more transfers coming. There's just no way for us to know, so know that these numbers all get an asterisk.
As of now, here's how I see it:
- We went into the season with 83 scholarship players (it was 84 but Evan Jones left just before training camp).
- Four players left during the season (Cam Thomas, Rueben Unije, Bennett Williams, and Louis Dorsey). So at the end of the season, there were 79 scholarship players on the roster.
- Eight scholarship seniors graduated, meaning there were 71 scholarship players set to return for 2019.
- Two fourth-year juniors announced they would not be returning, meaning the number is currently 69.
85-69=16. So as of today, the total number we can add between now and training camp is 16 (again, give or take one or two in either direction given all of the unknowns I listed above). Those 16 scholarships can be filled with high school recruits, transfers from other programs, and current walkons receiving scholarships. In the first two years, Lovie relied heavily on high school recruits - 48 in total. And I think that it's clear that he cleaned house a little bit to make room for as many as possible.
This season, it seems like the opposite is true. There's no real house-cleaning going on. There are currently only 10 high school players verballed. And there are rumors swirling of transfers and more transfers. I wrote about this over the summer when Milo Eifler transferred from Washington, guessing that we'd start seeing a lot more of that and a lot less high school development now that the guts of the roster has been overhauled, and I think that's maybe what we're seeing.
Which is why we haven't heard any recruiting names pop up these last three weeks. I thought we might see six or seven transfers after the season and then four or five new recruiting names this month, but that hasn't been the case. We basically had one big uncommitted recruit visiting each of the last two weekends: linebacker Shammond Cooper the weekend of the 8th/9th and defensive end Keith Randolph this past weekend.
So let's run those numbers out. Let's go with the dream scenario and guess that the staff lands Randolph (announcing at 11:00 am on Wednesday) and Cooper (announcing at the Under Armour All American Game on January 3rd). That would be a high school signing class of 12 players. Which would bring our total to 81 scholarship players for 2019.
Would they then pursue more high school players for the February signing date? Or would they simply concentrate on transfers to fill those final four spots?
Last year, with available rides and the ability to "blueshirt" recruits (the 2018 recruiting class was full, so you 'front-date' players so that they count towards the 2019 recruiting class limit), there were three transfers added after the February signing day. In March, AJ Bush announced he would transfer from Virginia Tech. In June, junior college receiver Dominic Stampley announced that he was coming. And in July, linebacker Milo Eifler announced that he was transferring from Washington to Illinois (he sat out this past season after transferring).
I point out these "summer" transfers to make the point that if the names being tossed around right now (this report says Georgia TE Luke Ford isn't with the team right now because he's "homesick" and back home in Illinois; this report says Jeff Thomas is considering a transfer to Illinois; this report says that Khalil Tate might leave Arizona and mentions Illinois as a possible destination) don't really end up transferring here, the staff still might not pursue other high school players and might simply go after some summer transfers (like Bush, Stampley, and Eifler last year). We might very well see a scenario where none of the players listed above end up transferring to Illinois yet the staff still goes past the February signing date with only 81 scholarship players because there are four more spring/summer transfers they'll be chasing.
Why expect a transfer-heavy focus? Because it's time to win. All of the freshmen who played immediately in 2017 will be juniors next season. The 2016 freshmen who started playing midway through Lovie's first season (Stanley Green, Tymir Oliver, Dele Harding, etc) will all be seniors. I'm of the belief that Lovie didn't use transfers (fifth-year or otherwise) in his first few years because he wanted to build a base of freshmen players to develop. Now, as he enters his fourth season, it's time to take those developed players, plug in some transfers to fill some gaps, and win.
Let's assume one more spot opens up (for whatever reason) and the number is 17. Without knowing what Cooper and Randolph decide (and without knowing if all of the current 10 commits will sign), I'll go with this for my final guess at the numbers:
3 regular transfers
2 fifth-year transfers
And then, hopefully, go win.