Feb 11, 2018

Before I can finalize the player-by-player breakdown of this class, I feel like I need to get this post out there. I feel like this point always gets missed. Yes, bigger/stronger/faster is wildly important in recruiting. But it still takes a backseat to "fit".

It's the thing I've changed my mind on the most the last nine years of doing this. Training camp 2008 I was 100% looking to see who the good players were. Training Camp 2018 I'll 100% be looking for player fit. It matters so, so much. Which means recruiting rankings matter a little less than we think. Stay with me. I'll explain.

You know how we'll hire a new offensive coordinator and then suddenly that offensive lineman who never played for three years is suddenly a starter? Or a new coach takes over and that outside linebacker who started for two years is suddenly moved inside and no longer starts? Al Seamonson says that Henry McGrew is the future of the Illini defensive line and then Lovie Smith moves him to tight end because his defense doesn't have Leos. Earnest Thomas is a linebacker in one defense and then he's a safety in another defense and then he's a hybrid safety/linebacker in another defense. Nate Bussey is a complete unknown quarterback trying to play safety and then Vic Koenning's defense puts him at the "star" position and he's a super star.

That's what I mean by "fit". Fit is absolutely everything. You have to find 22 players that fit, and that's so much harder than it sounds.

Now, if you're Alabama, it's easy - find players who do everything well and roll the ball out. Guys who are going to make multiple Pro Bowls later in their career are a "fit" for every single scheme and formation. But if you're not Alabama or Ohio State, and you're settling for athletes a rung below on the ladder, you have to find players with a very specific set of skills.

I've discussed this with many position groups during the Beckman/Cubit to Lovie transition. Cubit wanted all tall, lanky, Geronimo Allison or Sam Mays-like receivers. Lovie's recruiting has focused on receivers like Ricky Smalling, Carmoni Green, and incoming wideout Carlos Sandy. Tim Beckman wanted to take high school tight ends like Christian DiLauro and turn them into offensive linemen - Lovie wants to take massive high schoolers like Larry Boyd, Vederian Lowe, and Kievan Myers and trim them down into college linemen.

The same thing applies for every single position. There are, let's say, nine different "types" of linebackers - Type A through Type I. Tim Beckman was recruiting Types B, C, and H. Lovie's defense requires Type A, D, and F. So the B, C, and H guys, who were going to start for a long time here had Beckman kept his job, are suddenly behind some newcomers who are Types D and F.

I think you get the point. It's the thing I always talk about when someone asks me "I'm going to training camp this weekend - what should I look for?" I tell people to watch the newcomers vs. the inherited players and note how they all have common skillsets. The Beckman defensive ends all have this trait. The Lovie defensive ends all look like that.

I think the same is true of basketball, although in basketball it's easy to just grab one of those future NBA All-Stars and they'll overcome any lack of "fit" you can think of. It's what shapes my view of "coaching" so much - I don't think Mark Few or Bo Ryan could just take any old player, "coach them up", and make them great. I think they have an uncanny ability to say "I need players who can do C, G and F", identify those players in recruiting, and then train them to do those exact things. No one ranked in the top-100? Who cares? I went out and found point guards who are good at this, shooting guards who can do that, wings with this specific set of skills.....

Back to football, it's why I talk out of both sides of my mouth around when recruiting classes are signed.

"Lovie said this class would be better than last year and he failed to reach that goal".
while at the same time,
"This class, combined with the last class, should be enough to build a really good team by 2020. The two concerns are QB and LB."

Because I really do believe that. At every position besides quarterback and linebacker I believe we have the players to eventually win 8+ games. I think the defensive line will be a 10-win DL. Yes, the two classes ranked 10th and 12th in the Big Ten and it sounds crazy to suggest that that could eventually win 8+ games. But that's "fit".

And please note, I'm not taking the easy way out here. This is not a blind, hopeful "Player X might not be rated highly but the coaches love him so I love him". I've given a rating for every player based on their fit. This class, in my view, is a significant step back from last year (for a class that I believe was more like a top-30 class, not the 46th-best class).

But this is still probably our third best recruiting class this decade. I'd put the 2017 class clearly #1 and I'd have the 2013 class #2, but I think 2018 edges out 2011 (even though 2011 ranked higher at the time). 2011 lost Dondi Kirby, Clint Tucker, and Willie Beavers between signing day and August (they didn't qualify), so that would slide the class behind this class. 2015 would be the other contender, but three of the top four players in that class are gone and I'm starting to think we can call that class a bust. I'll re-adjust if the same happens to this class, but for now, put me down for 2017 first, then 2013, then 2018 by a hair over 2011, then the rest.

My point: don't forget about "fit". Jerry Kill rebuilt Minnesota with classes ranked in the 50's and 60's because of fit. Yes, some of that is "coaching" - training the players in certain techniques - but so much of it is identifying specific talents when recruiting. Yes, people use that as a cop-out and say "ranking doesn't matter this kid fits what Lovie wants to do so he's going to be great" - rarely ever blindly true. But you also cannot just look at a ranking and say "54th best class means eventual 54th best team" - you have to evaluate for fit.

Which I will do if I ever get this signing day breakdown finished.


Bear8287 on February 11 @ 05:39 PM CST

You've clearly evolved on this topic Robert. Nice article. Coaching + fit is pretty much all that the Illini fan base has to hang their hopes on at this point.

HiggsBoson on February 11 @ 08:49 PM CST

Well, we sure don't have wins to hang our hats on. My question about Lovie is will he continue the trend line and go 1-11 or revert to the mean and go 3-9? Another of those seasons will likely close the recruiting window.

illiniranger on February 11 @ 08:27 PM CST

I’m not super enthused about this just signed class, but think Lovie made a great move hiring Smith to give the O an identity it lacked. Now that we know what we want to do on O I think we’ll recruit that side of the ball (esp QB) better going forward.

Bear8287 on February 11 @ 08:57 PM CST

I'm looking for either an Illini football or basketball fan that's super enthused right now, because whatever they're taking, if it's legal, is highly marketable.

Speak Your Mind

Please login or register to post comments on the IlliniBoard.