Signing Day Summary - 2018
Happy Anniversary y'all. This post marks nine years of doing this. My tenth Signing Day. The very first blog post was a breakdown of the 2009 recruiting class, so I'll begin this summary with a State Of The Blog speech and then we'll move on to all of my thoughts on the 2018 football recruiting class (across several posts).
Right to it: the last 12 months have been the hardest by far. My wife and I celebrated the new year much like I imagine Lovie Smith doing: tossing 2017 in the trash and lighting it on fire. Let's never speak of it again. My wife and I had way too many funerals (my cousin in January, my wife's mom in March, my wife's brother in September), way too much work stress, way too few days off, way too many Illini losses.
As a result, I think I can confidently say that this was the worst year for the blog. My writing time suffered tremendously, and when I was able to write, it often felt rushed. Forced. If you've ever written anything in your life, you know how awful that feels. I kept asking my brain to be creative, and my brain would tell me it has nothing left.
But there were also times where this little blog felt like an oasis in the desert. There was one particular moment back in August when I was writing the football preview where everything felt right in the world. It was a Sunday, I was at a local coffee shop on a sunny summer afternoon, and the words were just flying out of my fingers. They weren't particularly inspiring - I was describing "the worst training camp I've ever witnessed" and discussing a football team I expected to win three games - but it was one of those "this is where I fit in the world" moments. If my headstone reads "was put on this earth to write 26,000-word previews about his 2-10 football team", I'm good with it. Dedicated husband, loving father, clinger to the belief that some day, Illini football will rise.
Just this evening my wife and I discussed how January was better. It felt like 2017 and all of its stresses were finally behind us. So I'm fairly excited about the next year. Not just because of that, but also for the blog. I mean, there's a good chance that 2017 was the worst football year of the next 5 and 2017-18 will be the worst basketball season of the next 10. This tunnel is so dark but I swear I can start to see a light at the end.
So, hopefully, I'll do better for you, the reader, in the next year. And hopefully, Lovie Smith recruits better for you, the fan, in the next year.
I've taken off work several times in the last few years for Signing Day. It's kind of like a holiday for me. So to not take it off this year - for there to be no excitement because Early Signing Day has replaced it - is a bit disappointing. I used to love Christmas morning, but now this new Early Christmas, six weeks before Christmas, where you get 70% of your presents, has taken the fun away. Maybe I need to take off for Early Christmas next year. But on Early Christmas you don't have all of your presents and can't really evaluate everything until real Christmas. Blurgh.
Anyway, there aren't many presents under the tree today. I wrote on Sunday night that all eyes were on Merlin Robertson - adding him to the class meant that we would surpass last year's class ranking, but not adding him meant we would fall short - and it looks like we're not adding him. We signed Jacob Hollins, who was our backup plan if Merlin went elsewhere, so Merlin is going elsewhere.
Which means I believe Lovie fell short of his declaration that the 2018 class would be better than the 2017 class. And that needs to be discussed.
As of this moment, the class is ranked 50th nationally. That will likely move a bit before Signing Day is over (we're only going to go down), but according to the numbers taught to me by my first grade teacher, 50 is lower than 46. And, really, we only fell to 46th after some post-signing-day adjustments - the target when Lovie made the declaration last year was "better than 43rd nationally". So let's compare "noon on Signing Day" numbers - 43rd last year, 50th this year. That's falling short.
But we should also put that in context with the numbers I've been tracking. The "trying to rebuild where recruits laugh at you the first time you call" programs. I wrote 2,000 words on that in my Football Preview on this very topic (at that coffeehouse that afternoon, I believe), and here are the comps I chose: Minnesota under Jerry Kill, Duke under David Cutcliffe, Indiana under Kevin Wilson, Wazzu under Mike Leach, Colorado under Mike MacIntyre, and Baylor under Art Briles. Here are their first five recruiting class rankings in these same composite rankings:
Jerry Kill -- 57th, 59th, 67th, 57th, 63rd
David Cutcliffe -- 54th, 73rd, 63rd, 62nd, 71st
Kevin Wilson -- 55th, 57th, 42nd, 48th, 53rd
Mike Leach -- 58th, 50th, 53rd, 42nd, 56th
Mike MacIntyre -- 68th, 74th, 69th, 69th, 35th
Art Briles -- 58th, 53rd, 38th, 46th, 26th
Now, after writing that, as I discussed when I looked back at the year-by-year win totals for those coaches, several people suggested Dan Mullen at Mississippi State and Jim Harbaugh at Stanford as other "took over a bottom-10 program and built it back up" examples. So here are their recruiting numbers:
Dan Mullen: 30th, 41st, 22nd, 24th, 36th
Stanford Harbaugh: 51st, 47th, 21st, 25th (then he left for the 49ers, so no 5th year)
Averaging all of those eight together, here are the expectations:
First class: 54th
Second class: 57th
Third class: 47th
Fourth class: 46th
Fifth class: 48th
Lovie's first class: 46th
Lovie's second class: 50th (for now)
So from that angle, this is slightly ahead of the typical successful rebuild. Again, this doesn't take into account unsuccessful rebuilds of moribund programs - if I tossed in the Kansas recruiting numbers the last 10 years these averages would plummet - but it was an attempt to look for a baseline of how these rebuilds happened. We knew the Zook thing was an outlier, so what is the typical expectation? If blue chip recruits laugh when you enter their high school wearing your gear, how have other teams overcome that?
For Lovie, well, the plan was to have the #43 class and then maybe land something in the 30's. That looked faintly possible, even up until yesterday (Merlin Robertson would have pushed the class to #39 when I ran the numbers over the weekend). But Lovie has fallen short of that.
And that's important to note given the way Lovie is going about this rebuild. Nearly every coach on that list above rebuilt using a combination of the players he inherited and the players he recruited. For some (Wilson, Cutcliffe, MacIntyre) it wasn't until most of the inherited players cleared out that he finally made a bowl and it was the long, slow, steady build. For others (Kill, Briles), they put in their system and improved each year as they slowly phased out the inherited players and brought in players that fit - they got to bowls a little quicker and then kept improving.
For Lovie, in year three, with only his second recruiting class since he took over in March of 2016, he's turning to his players immediately. As I've studied all fall, I can't find another example of a coach doing something as drastic as starting 16 different true freshmen and getting nearly 100 starts from true freshmen. In their third seasons, with three recruiting classes under their belts (to Lovie's two), Ron Zook and Tim Beckman were still leaning on 30+ inherited players. Lovie is down to 14 Tim Beckman guys.
Which means these classes are MASSIVELY important. I can't emphasize that enough. If he's going to go about it this way, then what - 90% of the rebuild's success is locked into these two classes? If he's going to win in years four and five - 2019 and 2020 - then those two-deeps will likely be overwhelmed by players from the 2017 and 2018 recruiting classes. Sure, there will be some freshmen sprinkled in here or there, but the payoff years of a rebuild will depend on the success of these two recruiting classes.
2017? I thought he nailed it. As I wrote a year ago today, the class ranked 43rd but my persona (Tom Cruise!) rankings had it well beyond that. After watching those players at camp and then on Saturdays, I stand by that. I think I made some bold prediction that it would end up as a top-4 Big Ten class once four years of postseason accolades are handed out and NFL draft spots are filled. Still think it was a home run.
2018? I don't have the same feeling. Tom Cruise averages are well below last year. I try to evaluate each player individually based on how I think he fits into what the coaches are trying to do, and there are some puzzlers here. I'll get into that more in my "Signing Day Breakdown" post later (going through each player), but for now, just know that it falls short.
And the main place it falls short are the two positions that frighten me - quarterback and linebacker. I can fill out 90% of the 2020 depth chart but I have no clue at linebacker or quarterback. And that's a big problem. Again, more on this in the Breakdown post, but for now, just know that I'm frightened.
Which leaves me in one spot: I hope they know what they're doing. They spotted Bennett Williams and Alex Palczewski and Jamal Woods and Isaiah Gay last year when no one else saw anything, so I'm hoping that some of these lower-end players in this class are similar pleasant surprises. James Kirkland and staff, to me, earned some serious Jerry Kill-like leeway after their performance with the 2017 class. I'm worried - I don't see it on film like I saw it last February - but they've earned some trust. I can't wait to get to training camp and check them out.
But I'm also very concerned. These classes are everything. The die is now mostly cast. The week Lovie was hired I added "October 12, 2019" to my Twitter bio and I'm still standing by that as The Moment. And apart from maybe two or three freshmen in the 2019 class who are pushing the upperclassmen for playing time that October, we now know most of the team for that game.
If Cory Patterson comes through and brings The Big Three from Trinity Catholic it won't really have much bearing on that 2019 Michigan game. It will mean that 2021 has a chance of being pretty good, but I'm not looking for "these 2019 freshmen show promise that we'll be pretty good in a few years" at that point. By October 12, 2019, we need to see what it will be, not what it's going to be.
And what it will be is now mostly set.