The good news: there's a lot more high-end talent that will be on the field come August 31st. A few highly-ranked players pursued by everyone. The bad news: that's a good thing for basketball, but might not matter for football? Let's look at some numbers.
When driving, I often let my mind wander to this fantasyland where Illini Football is returning to prominence. And when driving yesterday, I started to think about all of the players who will be added to the mix next year. Not just the recruits in this class, but also transfers becoming eligible and suspended players (academic or otherwise) becoming eligible. Not only are we adding freshmen like Isaiah Williams and Marquez Beason, we're also getting Larry Boyd back from a one-year suspension. We're getting Verdis Brown back after he his reported "academic redshirt" season. We add Washington transfer Milo Eifler who sat out last season.
That led me to research the rankings of those individual players to see where the "new" players slot in. If we just go with the individual ranking for each player on the entire roster (the 69 current scholarship players plus the 11 players who signed on Wednesday), and if we rank them from 1 to 80, where do these "added to the mix this fall" players fit in?
Here's the top 15 when using their composite score (combined ranking of all the scouting services) on 247 Sports. Players shown in bold did not play last season but wil play this next season:
1. Marquez Beason .9613
2. Isaiah Williams .9502
3. Milo Eifler .9368
4. Calvin Avery .9174
5. Verdis Brown .8944
6. Ricky Smalling .8868
7. Kendrick Green .8801
8. Dre Brown .8744
9. Moses Okpala .8784
10. Keith Randolph .8739
11. Larry Boyd .8721
12. Owen Carney .8695
13. Carmoni Green .8680
14. Coran Taylor .8580
15. Dele Harding .8549
That's a serious influx of talent. On paper, eight of the fifteen most talented players on the roster will be "newcomers" (Larry Boyd isn't a "newcomer", but he'll be on the field this fall and he wasn't this past season). What does this "mean"? Does it mean we'll suddenly be better? Let's get to that in a bit. Let's have some more fun first.
Now let's assume that three things happen (dreaming, but let's dream): linebacker Shammond Cooper picks Illinois when he announces his choice on January 3rd at the Under Armour All American Game, Oklahoma transfer AD Miller (who announced that he's transferring just this week) picks Illinois (he was once committed to Illinois back in 2015), and Georgia tight end Luke Ford (who has also submitted his name to the NCAA Transfer portal due to reported "homesickness") picks home-state Illinois. If we add those three to the list above...
1. Luke Ford .9753
2. Marquez Beason .9613
3. Isaiah Williams .9502
4. Milo Eifler .9368
5. Calvin Avery .9174
6. Shammond Cooper .9027
7. Verdis Brown .8944
8. Ricky Smalling .8868
9. Kendrick Green .8801
10. Dre Brown .8744
11. Moses Okpala .8784
12. Keith Randolph .8739
13. Larry Boyd .8721
14. Owen Carney .8695
15. Carmoni Green .8680
16. Coran Taylor .8580
17. Dele Harding .8549
18. AD Miller .8524
Keep in mind that this is only paper. This is not a list of the 18 most-talented Illini players. These players might be transferring here because they should have been rated .8345 (1,500th best player), not .9753 (50th best player). We're still in the world of "on paper".
But still, if 11 of your 18 highest-rated players will be joining your team next season, that's a massive talent influx. The player who was the 18th-best player on the roster last year returns to find himself the 29th-best player on the roster. You can say it now, but especially if you land one, two, or all three of those other guys: the roster "got better" in the offseason. Significantly better.
The problem? This isn't basketball. Skill matters for football, but depth matters more. Having three linebackers rated .8600 is way better than having one four-star linebacker and then a bunch of low three-stars or two-stars. Okpala + Randolph is the perfect scenario. Two guys, same position, same talent level, similar offers - even if one busts, you've got the other guy. For Illini football to really compete with Iowa or even Northwestern, that's what would have to happen in recruiting. It can't be a few individual talents here and there; it has to be deep across the board.
That doesn't mean it's useless in football, though. I read an article on Tuesday from Bill Connelly of SB Nation talking about the Pareto Principle (the 80/20 rule). His thought: instead of using the last two years of recruiting rankings in his S&P+ numbers (basically, "what is the talent level of your new starters this year?"), he wondered aloud if it would be better to look at the top 20% of the players on each roster. What he found (his tl;dr version): "Looking at the top talent on each team ends up being more predictive than any sort of multi-year recruiting averages".
His numbers weren't just flat numbers. As with any good NERDstatter, there needs to be some weighting. He added a multiplier for each position (high school wide receivers are always rated higher, on average, than offensive linemen), and he adjusted the rankings to weight defensive players more (his studies show that defensive recruiting ranking has a higher correlation to performance than the ranking of offensive recruits).
Where does Illinois' 2018 roster fall when he does that? 62nd nationally. And we're surrounded by the team's you'd probably expect to be surrounded by. The four teams in front of Illinois? South Florida, Iowa State, Syracuse, Kansas State. The four teams behind Illinois? Washington State, Wake Forest, Oregon State, Texas Tech. Makes sense - we end up battling with many of those schools for recruits.
The interesting thing to watch: where the Illinois ranking moves next season in this "Pareto Principle" ranking. Put the possible transfers aside and just look at the recruiting class (plus Cooper). When listing all of the players on the roster, Illinois will add Williams, Beason, Eifler, Cooper, Okpala, and Randolph to their top-17, four of them in the top 5. Again, the reason for looking at this (in Connelly's words): "looking at the top talent ends up being more predictive than any sort of multi-year recruiting average". And this class adds top talent.
Purely a guess (I don't know his exact weighting, so I can't run the numbers), but I'd guess that on his 2019 Pareto Principle rankings, Illinois will move up to around 55th as the roster stands now and perhaps as high as 48th with all of the possible transfers. Again, that doesn't mean we're "back", but Wisconsin is 43rd, Iowa is 45th, and Northwestern is 49th, so we'd be approaching their neighborhood (again, simply in top-end talent, not depth).
That's the good way to look at this. The bad way? I just listed a bunch of teams with similar high-end roster talent (Iowa State, Syracuse, Wake Forest, Wazzu), and they're all in bowls while Illinois went 4-8 and lost games 63-0 and 63-24 and 63-33. Talent means nothing when your defense ranks 121st in the country. If you can't coach 'em up, nothing else matters. Yes, it was the youngest team in the Big Ten, so one would assume that everything takes a step forward next year and the following year, but still: 63-0.
My takeaway? Connelly's numbers counted Larry Boyd and Verdis Brown, but they were both academic redshirts. It's possible that Coran Taylor followed a similar "let's just concentrate on school work for the first year" to what his high school teammate Kendrick Green did the year before. Those Pareto Principle numbers look at the top players and make assumptions on how you're play when you have players like that, but it doesn't realize that three or four of them aren't playing that season.
So when you add Brown and Eifler and Boyd and Taylor to the mix and you recruit Beason and Williams and Randolph and Okpala (and possibly Cooper)? It's a significant boost. Yes, Eifler might have busted at Washington and never amounts to much here. Yes, there's no saying that these players actually do return from academic redshirts. But we're dealing with paper here, and right now, on paper, this is a significant talent influx for next season.
And it might even get better in the next few weeks.