OK, So What Does It Mean?
Suddenly, we've landed all this football talent. Some high schoolers, some transfers, some fifth-year transfers. There's no question that the talent has taken a step forward in the last six weeks. But what does that mean when it comes to wins? Especially next season, which I'm comfortable labeling as The Most Important Illini Football Season In A Decade.
Let's start with the talent. Here's an update to my chart, adding Luke Ford and AD Miller. I've expanded it to 20. If you look at the individual composite score (combining their ranking from 247, ESPN, and Rivals) for every player on the roster, here are the top-20 players as of today. Bold if they weren't on the field last year (which will include players who were redshirting last year, either by choice or for academic reasons):
1. Jeff Thomas .9807
2. Luke Ford .9753
3. Marquez Beason .9613
4. Isaiah Williams .9502
5. Milo Eifler .9368
6. Calvin Avery .9174
7. Shammond Cooper .9027
8. Verdis Brown .8944
9. Ricky Smalling .8868
10. Kendrick Green .8801
11. Moses Okpala .8784
12. Dre Brown .8744
13. Keith Randolph .8739
14. Larry Boyd .8721
15. Owen Carney .8695
16. Coran Taylor .8580
17. Jordyn Slaughter .8551
18. Dele Harding .8549
19. Khalan Tolson .8539
20. AD Miller .8524
A few things to note real quick:
- Please note that some of these players, like Coran Taylor and Jordyn Slaughter, were on the roster and available to play - they were simply redshirting.
- Please note that this is very common (redshirting freshmen), so Moses Okpala and Keith Randolph might do the same. Adding freshman talent is great... for 2021 when they'll be juniors.
- Please note that two of these players - the top two players - would need a waiver from the NCAA to play next season. Otherwise, they'd have to sit out, just like #5 did this past season.
- Please note that transfers often transfer because they played below their ranking. Eifler was third string linebacker going into his third season at Washington, so he transferred "down" to Illinois. AD Miller transferred down from OKlahoma. It's likely that Miller isn't the "20th-best player" on the roster next season.
But also please note that if everything works in Illinois' favor - let's just have some fun and act like Thomas and Ford get their waivers - then what I wrote about a few weeks ago is even more of a thing now: Larry Boyd and Verdis Brown becoming academically eligible again at the same time as Marquez Beason, Isaiah Williams, and Shammond Cooper are added to the roster at the same time as eligible-now transfers like Milo Eifler and AD Miller hit the field at the same time as waiver transfers Jeff Thomas and Luke Ford join in. That's massive.
Let's write this out as bad news/good news. Bad news first, as always.
The Bad News
For the most part, college football is about player development, not plug-and-play. The majority of those names in bold above mean there's increased hope for 2021, not 2019. And we need to win in 2019 (and in 2021). The best case scenario would have been making a list like this for the 2017 class and then watching them all bloom in 2019.
So if we look at another scenario -- Thomas doesn't get a waiver, sits out, declares for the draft, and never catches a pass for Illinois; Ford doesn't get a waiver and has to sit out until 2020; Williams, Beason, Cooper, Okpala, and Randolph aren't ready to contribute until 2021 -- then this doesn't move the needle very much for next season. Boyd and Brown becoming eligible would, and Miller and Eifler added to the mix would, but the rest would all be names for the future.
Which, of course, is a good thing for that future. Say this thing doesn't get turned around and Lovie is fired. Well, then you'd still want players like this on the roster for the next guy to build with. Yes, some of them might transfer if there's a coaching change, but still, we want those names in bold to wear orange and blue, regardless of who is coaching them. Ideally they play in this system (1. Install a system 2. Recruit players specifically for that system. 3. Profit when they're upperclassmen), but talent is needed in Champaign, and this is pure talent.
BUT, that probably doesn't mean much for 2019. The fate of the 2019 season depends on how Lovie develops the Cubit class (Dele Harding, Jake Hansen, Stanley Green, et al) and how he advances his first class now that they're juniors (Bobby Roundtree, Mike Epstein, Ricky Smalling, Nate Hobbs). In college basketball, the 2019 recruits will be lost for a year and then make an impact as sophomores. For college football, add a year to that - it's almost always the true junior/redshirt sophomore years. Yes, more talented players can make an impact early (see Clemson winning the title), but those are three-years-and-off-to-the-NFL kids.
The bad news: those names in bold above probably aren't going to make the immediate impact you're hoping for next season.
The Good News
The good news is simple: there's so much more talent now. There are impact players. College football is about depth, and we're developing talented depth. There are 13 four-star or high-3-star players in bold above, and that raises the talent level significantly. If a college football rebuild is a lock and dam, the water is almost high enough to open the gates.
Just looking at that list, if we apply the "50% bust" rule, I'd say we're still in good shape. The whole point is to have two guys battling for every position. Alabama will recruit two 5-star left tackles, one will bust, one will be great, and they keep on rollin'. If we apply that to what we're adding, even if one of Calvin Avery/Verdis Brown busts, even if one of Moses Okpala/Keith Randoph busts, if one of Marquez Beason/Isaiah Williams busts, if one of Milo Eifler/Shammond Cooper busts, even if one of Jeff Thomas/Luke Ford busts, it's then likely that the other guy is a significant contributor.
And that allows your depth/development guys to be depth/development guys. Before the AD Miller/Jeff Thomas transfers, Rod Smith was probably going to rely on Dominic Stampley and Trenard Davis to catch 35+ balls next year. With the transfers, now Davis and Stampley can be the 4th/5th receivers, provide depth, catch 18 passes, find their role.
That's true across the board. Luke Ford takes the pressure off Daniel Barker to be everything at tight end. Milo Eifler allows Khalan Tolson to slowly develop instead of "here, second year kid with very little experience - go make 85 tackles". We instantly went from "perhaps Nate Hobbs can return punts, but really the battle has been Jordan Holmes and Carlos Sandy" to "it's either Thomas or Beason for the next four years, and both could win returner of the year in the Big Ten".
And there are flexibility benefits as well when you add plus athletes. Randolph and Cooper allow Jamal Woods to move to defensive tackle full time. And if Woods is at defensive tackle with guys like Avery already there, maybe that allows Verdis Brown to move over to offensive line (starting center in 2021?). Beason helps the Tony Adams move to safety be more permanent. And on and on.
That's the real benefit here. The names in bold above give Lovie so much more flexibility. Yes, the majority won't be Big Ten ready until 2021, but as they're getting their feet wet, there's so many more options for this coaching staff that didn't exist two months ago. Transfers, sit-outs, suspended players, and top-100 freshmen, all joining the field at the same time.
The good news: it's much more likely we're building something sustainable.