Roster Comparison

Dec 29, 2018

I've had two different people ask me to do this breakdown: the roster Lovie inherited vs. the roster he's building. Both requests came after Signing Day. Now that there are three Lovie classes, how do these three compare to the players that Tim Beckman left behind?

Here's the way the question was posed:

@alioneye Know you probably have your hands full after the signing-day opus, but I would love to see a breakdown of the current roster (including the 2019 signees) versus what Beckman/Cubit left Lovie.#ILLINI #WEWILLWIN

-- Alana Church (@ChurchOfErotica) December 20, 2018

OK, so first off, this is going to venture into territory where I feel uncomfortable. I do not want this post to be a bus toss. We're fans, and fans love the backup quarterback, so this exercise can so easily venture off into "Smith totally SUCKED now we have Jones and JONES RULES". And then in a few years, Jones sucks but EDWARDS IS THE FUTURE.

That's not the intent. Let's just look at the position groups and see where we end up. And because Lovie took over in March of 2016, I'm not going to include the 2016 senior class. He coached them for seven months and then they graduated, so they weren't really part of the "rebuild". In my mind, the best way to do a comparison like this is to look at the 2014, 2015, and 2016 classes vs. Lovie's first three classes (2017-2019). The players he was given vs. the players he has brought in.


Inherited: Eli Peters, Chayce Crouch, Jeff George Jr.
Recruited: Cam Thomas, MJ Rivers, Matt Robinson, Coran Taylor, AJ Bush, Isaiah Williams

There's a fairly clear separation here. Quarterbacks recruited by Bill Cubit to run his offense (mostly pocket guys, although Crouch could run) vs. quarterbacks recruited by Lovie simply for their dual threat capabilities. As soon as Peters saw what Lovie wanted to do at QB, he transferred to Toledo. Crouch retired from football after several shoulder injuries. JGjr transferred to Michigan (for about three weeks) and then Pitt.

And now Lovie will run with one of his four guys next season. Bush graduated, and Thomas transferred, so it's Rivers, Robinson, Taylor, and Williams fighting it out for the starting spot. All four dual-threat QB's, and since we're grading this on "what has Lovie brought in when compared to what he inherited", the surprising early performance of Rivers + the Isaiah Williams offer list (Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame, Oklahoma) means that I'm giving the advantage to Lovie's recruits.

Running Back

Inherited: Kendrick Foster, Ke'Shawn Vaughn, Reggie Corbin, Dre Brown, Tre Nation
Recruited: Mike Epstein, Ra'Von Bonner, Jakari Norwood, Kenyon Sims, Kyron Cumby, Nick Fedanzo

This one goes the other way. Clear, CLEAR advantage to the inherited running backs. Especially when you consider that Epstein is really an "inherited" running back (he had originally committed to Tim Beckman and then re-affirmed his commitment to Lovie). If I rank the top five there, the only one from Lovie's column that makes the list would be Epstein, and he really belongs in the other column.

This one is a blowout. The running backs Lovie inherited 63, the running backs Lovie has recruited 0. Major concern moving forward.

Tight End

Inherited: Nathan Echard, Austin Roberts, Zarrian Holcombe, Andrew Trainer, Griffin Palmer
Recruited: Louis Dorsey, Daniel Barker, Griffin Moore

This one is difficult because the numbers are so low in Lovie's recruiting classes. He added Dorsey, but Dorsey has already left the team. Holcombe was also dismissed, and Trainer was moved to offensive tackle, and there are no more defensive guys moved to blocking tight end remaining (Echard graduated in 2017, Roberts graduated in 2018), so the tight end room next year is a senior walkon-turned-scholarship-player (Bobby Walker), a junior (Palmer), a sophomore (Barker), and a freshman (Moore).

I can't give an edge to either one here. It was a concern then and it remains a concern now. Although I will say, if a certain 4-star tight end transfer from the SEC were to end up at Illinois, it would tip the scales heavily in Lovie's favor.

Wide Receiver

Inherited: Sam Mays, Dominic Thiemann, Trenard Davis, Mikey Dudek, MJ McGriff, Raphael Barr, Malik Turner, Caleb Reams
Recruited: Ricky Smalling, Carmoni Green, Dominic Stampley, Carlos Sandy, Edwin Carter, Casey Washington, Jeff Thomas

In the most unfortunate circumstance in history, Lovie only got eight games in three years out of Mikey Dudek. So of the inherited receivers, he got contributions from Turner, Davis, and Mays... but that's about it. Still some hope for Reams or Davis to have a breakout senior year (need someone from that group to grab 35 passes), but the contributions from inherited receivers are pretty much done.

The recruited group holds a lot more promise, especially with the addition of Jeff Thomas. It bears repeating: Thomas is the most talented player at Illinois in a dozen years. A certain NFL talent. Probably only plays one season and then heads off to the draft. Add him in with Smalling - who, let's be honest, struggled for much of this past season - and you have to legitimate receivers. Then you hope for surprises from other guys like Dominic Stampley (19 catches for 311 yards as a sophomore, almost all in the final five games) or maybe Edwin Carter (two touchdown catches in his first game but then a season-ending injury).

I'm giving this one to Lovie. Upgrade. Wasn't so clear a few months ago, but Stampley's late emergence and the Thomas transfer moves this one to Lovie's column.

Offensive Line

Inherited: Christian DiLauro, Jordan Fagan, Zach Heath, Nick Allegretti, Adam Solomon, Zeke Martin, Gabe Megginson, Darta Lee, Jake Cerny, Eddy Fish, Kurt Gavin, Doug Kramer
Recruited: Alex Palczewski, Vederian Lowe, Kendrick Green, Larry Boyd, Hojo Watkins, Kievan Myers, Jordyn Slaughter, Rueben Unije, Evan Kirts

This one feels like a blowout for Lovie. He inherited 12 offensive linemen and maybe three of them were Big Ten linemen? I don't think I have to say "maybe" - DiLauro was solid (and is on the 49ers practice squad), Allegretti was great, and Kramer has solidified the center position. The other nine guys simply weren't able to cut it against Big Ten defensive linemen (jury still out on Jake Cerny and Kurt Gavin, to be fair). And, like noted under Epstein above (just the opposite way here), Kramer was supposed to be a grayshirt - not on the roster (and not practicing) in 2016 but hopefully joining the team in 2017 - Lovie looked at his film and put him on scholarship before the 2016 season, prepping him in practice that fall to get ready to be the starting center in 2017. So he gets some credit there.

Lovie then struck gold in his first recruiting class. He had inherited only three ready-for-the-Big-Ten linemen across the four previous recruiting classes and then landed four in his very first class - Palcho, Lowe, Green, and Boyd. And I don't think it stops there. When Palcho and Lowe graduate after the 2020 season, I believe Myers and Slaughter will be ready to step in and not miss a beat as redshirt juniors. My belief: Lovie has completely turned around the offensive line issues by identifying actual Big Ten linemen. He gets and A, Beckman and Cubit get a D-.

Defensive End

Inherited: Sean Adesanya, James Crawford, Henry McGrew, Brandon Jones, Ayo Shogbonyo
Recruited: Bobby Roundtree, Owen Carney, Isaiah Gay, Marc Mondesir, Ezekiel Holmes, Julian Pearl, Moses Okpala, Seth Coleman

This one leans heavily towards Lovie as well. Had Cubit kept the job, his plan was to go into the 2017 season with Sean Adesanya, Henry McGrew, and Brandon Jones as his defensive ends (he might have also moved Crawford there from linebacker like Lovie did - hard to say). He would've also needed to reinforce with true freshmen (or jucos) since the recruiting numbers had fallen off so harshly. What did Lovie inherit? A very, very thin defensive end rotation (literally and figuratively).

The line Lovie recruited has struggled as freshmen and sophomores - no doubt about it. But if you just look at the offers, you can see the talent potential for the next two years. Brandon Jones picked Illinois over Missouri State. Henry McGrew over Kansas. Sean Adesanya had only two offers - Illinois and Pitt. Well in a different world (one where we didn't land these kids), Bobby Roundtree is at Michigan State, Owen Carney at Florida State, Seth Coleman at Nebraska, and Moses Okpala at Wisconsin. It's a significant talent upgrade, and hopefully it begins to show on the field this fall.

Defensive Tackle

Inherited: Jamal Milan, Tymir Oliver, Kenyon Jackson, Tito Odenigbo
Recruited: Lere Oladipo, Jamal Woods, Deon Pate, Calvin Avery, Verdis Brown, Keith Randolph

This one is much closer. Odenigbo was great at Miami this year, so Lovie inherited some talent that he lost to transfer (although it should be noted that his early-season suspension and late-season flag toss had a lot to do with that transfer). Milan, Oliver, and Jackson will be the centerpiece of the defensive line rotation next season.

But then, after they graduate, Illinois shouldn't miss a beat with Avery, Brown, Woods, and company. In fact, I think Lovie moves Keith Randolph to defensive tackle, keeps Jamal Woods at defensive tackle, and if Lere Oladipo is still on the roster (his court case was dismissed, but there's been no word on what the University will do), then Verdis Brown probably moves back over to the offensive line.

I think I'll call this one a push. Lovie has recruited some four-stars (Avery and Brown) and some high three-stars (Oladipo and Randolph). But Beckman and Cubit left him with the guys who will start over those players next season (Milan and Oliver).


Inherited: Julian Jones, Tre Watson, Justice Williams, Christion Abercrombie, Dele Harding, Jake Hansen
Recruited: Del'Shawn Phillips, James Knight, Khalan Tolson, Jacob Hollins, Milo Eifler

I think this one is advantage "inherited". Tre Watson transferred and was All Big Ten. Harding and Hansen are the starters next season. Lovie was given enough to work with (but it hasn't worked).

On the other hand, if Shammond Cooper does pick Illinois at the Under Armour All American Game on Thursday night, then this one probably tips back towards Lovie. Getting 4-star transfer Milo Eifler is a big step in the right direction, and Cooper would be another one in that column. Two four-star linebackers changes the calculus.

Still, until that happens, advantage inherited players. Recruiting linebackers has been an issue.


Inherited: Jaylen Dunlap, Ahmari Hayes, Chris James, Frank Sumpter, Evan Jones, Cam Watkins
Recruited: Nate Hobbs, Jartavius Martin, Delano Ware, Ron Hardge, Dylan Wyatt, Nick Walker, Marquez Beason, Joseph Thompson

I think this one is clearly Lovie, again, helped by the recent superstar talent (Beason). Lovie inherited two Big Ten corners (Dunlap and Watkins), but the rest all transferred down (Frank Sumpter to Eastern Kentucky, Evan Jones to Georgia State, Chris James to Stephen F. Austin). He has replaced them with guys who clearly look like Big Ten-level talents (Hobbs, Martin, Ware) plus a top-100 recruit in Beason.

There's probably still some corner-safety movement yet to come (it's possible Adams moves back to corner, which would boost Lovie even more in this category; it's possible Ware goes back to safety instead of nickel corner), but overall, at corner, Lovie has significantly upgraded the talent.


Inherited: Julian Hylton, Darwyn Kelly, Pat Nelson, Stanley Green, Harvey Clayton
Recruited: Bennett Williams, Tony Adams, Dawson DeGroot, Kendall Smith, Kerby Joseph, Sydney Brown

This one is a little bit more of a push. Maybe slight advantage Lovie? If Bennett Williams were still with the team, he'd move this squarely into the "Lovie wins" category, but with his dismissal, it's hard to say that Lovie has significantly upgraded the safety position.

And the transfer of Pat Nelson hurts here. Nelson finished his season at SMU with a 14-tackle performance in their final game against Tulsa. That really could have helped this season. Hylton, Kelly, and Clayton weren't going to be Big Ten starters, but I'm not sure DeGroot or Smith will be either. So this comes down to Nelson and Green vs. Adams and Brown (with maybe Kerby Joseph tipping the scales slightly in Lovie's favor). Really, though, it's a push.

OK, so where does this leave us. The list:

Inherited players clearly better than recruited players: Running Back
Inherited players better than recruited players: Linebacker
Push: Tight End, Defensive Tackle, Safety
Recruited players better than inherited players: Quarterback, Wide Receiver, Cornerback
Recruited players clearly better than inherited players: Offensive Line, Defensive End

The winner: Lovie. There are still scary positions - if Lovie wants to build a long-term program, those two in the Beckman/Cubit column (running back and linebacker) and the three pushes (tight end, defensive tackle, and safety) must be addressed in the 2020 class (and probably should have been addressed in the last three classes) - but overall, I think we're seeing an upgrade.

The question now: can all the king's horses and all the king's men put it together?


neale stoner on December 29 @ 10:37 AM CST

Excellent story. Seems to me our 2019 bowl hopes depend on reversing two pushes-defensive tackle and safety, whether by transfer or improved play from the incumbent roster. We might have had a shot at a 2018 bowl if we’d had Nelson and Williams at safety all season. Those two losses in the center of the defense were devastating.

neale stoner on December 29 @ 11:10 AM CST

Excellent story. Seems to me our 2019 bowl hopes depend on reversing two pushes-defensive tackle and safety, whether by transfer or improved play from the incumbent roster. We might have had a shot at a 2018 bowl if we’d had Nelson and Williams at safety all season. Those two losses in the center of the defense were devastating.

uofi08 on December 29 @ 09:06 PM CST

Love your roster breakdowns. Accurate assessment. Only thing I’d disagree on is receiver. Jeff Thomas is the only receiver Lovie has brought in that’s better than Dudek or Turner. And the only way he plays here is if the NCAA grants him a waiver, which is far from certain.

illiniranger on December 29 @ 11:15 PM CST

Halfway through the article, but Vontae and Benn were better skill guys than Thomas, and suited up less than a dozen years ago. RM5 is the best offensive player I’ve ever seen at Illinois (also won Silver Football IIRC), Leshoure and AJ Jenkins were first round picks in addition to RM5 and Vontae, Benn a second rounder.

Thomas is a NFL player, he probably won’t have the production to be a first rounder and I don’t think he’s better (certainly not clearly better) than any of those guys with the exception of Jenkins, and I doubt his production passes Jenkins based on current style of play.

It bears mentioning simply from an expectation management perspective.

illiniranger on December 29 @ 11:19 PM CST

The key to the whole article is whether or not these guys end up better than say, Iowa. Who really cares if they are better than Beckman/Cubit? They have to be better than Fitzgerald, Ferentz, Frost, Fleck, etc. That comparison would be more interesting to me.

illiniranger on December 29 @ 11:31 PM CST

Another thing I’m thinking - the fact that Lovie, after three recruiting classes, hasn’t out rostered Beckman/Cubit at every position is kind of a searing indictment of how poor he’s recruiting. I mean if the bar is “Beckman and a glorified interim”, and he’s paid more and his staff is paid more than any Illini group in history, and he’s not absolutely clearing that bar at every position group... what are we even doing?

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