I should have a regular column that I call "vacation thoughts". I guess that couldn't really be a "regular column" unless I was taking regular vacations, but I do my best Illini thinking while on vacation. Specifically, when we're in a Quaint Little Town and my wife is thumbing her way through a Quaint Little Shop. I have to tell you, I'm just about the world's best partner for Quaint Little Shop shopping.
Here's how we work. My wife's excitement for being in a small New England town walking through their quaint downtown is equal to my excitement to being in New England watching the Illini squeak one out. Sometimes, when we're on these roadtrips, she wants to go to the game so we sit in the stands. Most often, she just wants to check out the town while I go to the game.
The first few times I felt bad. In Washington, she walked with me to the game but then turned around, walked back to the hotel, and stayed there the whole time. I felt bad - here I am enjoying my thing while she's sitting in a hotel room - but she likes that I get to do my thing while she relaxes at the hotel. In turn, I support every single Quiant Little Shop she wants to visit.
I follow at a distance in the shop, often checking my phone (Tuesday it was "go through the boxscore from Saturday's game again"). When summoned for an opinion on something, I'm right there. If they have a seating area (some stores go as far as a couch with magazines), then I hang out there while she shops. I love to give my opinion (I'm a blogger), so I'm always at the ready with "you already have something like that" and "yes, we absolutely could hang that in the kitchen". I'm always the purchaser too - she hands it to me, I go get in line, she moves next door. We can crank out a Quaint Little Downtown with military precision.
Obviously, though, there is downtime. There are shops where no opinions are required. If there's nothing of interest to me (home goods, I'm looking at the entire store myself; jewelry, I'm looking for a chair), I'll sometimes have 5-10-15 minutes to just sit there and think. And I think about Illinois football (duh).
My thoughts this trip: the whole transfer thing. We've gotten so much out of the six transfers who are starting (Peters, Petitbon, Sidney, Imatorbhebhe, Betiku, and Eifler) that I'm almost certain the coaching staff will be stalking the transfer portal again this winter. Is that sustainable? Can it be exploited? These are the things I've been pondering.
And the main thing I've settled on is that there's a sweet spot here that can be exploited. Specifically, it's a place where an Illinois can boost their talent level. I was skeptical at first - go read my Imatorbhebhe or Peters LLUOI posts and you'll see a lot of "let's be frank here, they're only transferring to Illinois because they were busts at their blue blood school" - but I'm realizing now that it's the Instant Gratification Generation (the one your uncle complains about every Thanksgiving) which is really working on our favor.
I need to break this down. There are three main parts.
1. Blue Bloods are blue bloods because of depth
The thing they don't tell you when the Michigan coach is on your parents' couch talking about how badly he needs you in Ann Arbor: they're recruiting five other outside linebackers at your skill level (across several classes) and, really, only two of them are going to play. If there are injuries, they might get to the third and fourth guy, but really, they're bringing in five guys to fight for two spots.
Some of these players switched high schools, and that experience was exactly what they were promised. Come here and be a star on a state title team. They commit and then they're a star on a state title team. Then they get the same pitch from college coaches, pick one, expect to be a star, and find out three days into camp that they're with the fourth string and it might be a few years before they even see the second string.
The good coaches, of course, keep them bought-in. They point to the four NFL draft picks last season who waited until their fourth season for their opportunity. Those players bought in to the process and now it has paid off; you just need to buy in to the process.
And for years, players have bought in. But with the advent of the Transfer Portal, players are becoming a little more self aware. As such...
2. More and more, college players aren't patient enough to wait to see if they'll win the starting job.
We've seen an explosion in college football transfers the last few years. Both football and basketball. The Transfer Portal was developed to meet the demand of so many players wanting schools to know that they had asked for their release and could be contacted. Remember how players used to tweet a photo of their release letter as a way to let other programs know "you are able to contact me now"? This replaces that. The portal is more or less a job board now where coaches can go find a linebacker looking for work.
This is where we get to the part about your uncle at Thanksgiving. His complaints about "this generation" and how they all want "instant gratification"? That plays into this. I wouldn't characterize it as "instant gratifaction" as much as I would say that they're aware of other opportunities. Those "millennials" who left your uncle's company were probably smart to do it; yes, there's no "loyalty", but when you can get a push notification on your phone making you aware of better opportunities, why not check them out?
I think the trend of players leaving after two or three years will only increase. The pitch from the coach saying "look at these players who waited three years for their turn and it paid off" will continue to come up short. Especially now that "take summer school classes all three years and graduate in three" is a full-blown thing. Players will accept a redshirt and spend two years battling to get off the scout team. But if they're nowhere by the end of the third year, especially if they can graduate, they're going to be looking elsewhere more and more. I think you'll even see a lot more Milo Eifler/Derrick Smith transfers - two years to know if I'm part of your future plans, and if not, I'll transfer, sit out, and play two elsewhere.
3. If it's playing time they're looking for, they'll often prefer a non blue-blood.
This is what I mean by "sweet spot". It's almost... good that we've historically sucked? I'll give you an example.
When Wole Betiku visited for a spring practice back in April, I heard that he was headed to Tennessee next. And that the coaches were hoping to get him to verbal before the Tennessee visit happened. Leaving Tennessee's 0-2 start and their general "how do we get back to being 1998 Tennessee?" aside, I think it's much better to be Illinois than Tennessee during that recruitment. When Betiku was in high school, if he was choosing between Tennessee and Illinois, it's Tennessee 99 times out of 100. But as a transfer who hasn't been able to crack the starting lineup yet? It's helpful that we're Illinois. "Son, if it's playing time you're looking for...."
I'm not arguing that we should suck forever and therefore land the best transfers, but I'm saying that we're in a little sweet spot right now. High school players keep saying no, but a lot of transfers said yes. That transfer pipeline is only going to increase in the next 5-10 years (the way I see it), and a historically moribund program like Illinois can take advantage of that. You know, until we're seen as "good".
Obviously there's a flashing warning light here: reliance on transfers is really no different than reliance on jucos. And we saw what happened with Tim Beckman added 20 jucos and then the next two coaches hopped off the juco train. Those 20 jucos took up scholarships that would have gone to freshman you're developing in your program. And if you don't replace the jucos with more jucos, you're stuck starting a ton of freshmen.
So if we hop on the transfer train (believe me, we're on the transfer train more than any other P5 program right now), then we probably need to stay on the transfer train. Especially in 2021. Those six names I mentioned above (Peters, Petitbon, Sidney, Imatorbhebhe, Betiku, and Eifler) will all be gone by then, and they took up six scholarships that would have gone to freshmen who would be ready in 2021, so it's either add more freshmen (and play them early) or add more transfers. I'm guessing we plug gaps with more transfers.
Which - and I can't believe I'm saying this - might not be that bad? I don't think I'd want to see us add nine transfers again (including Chase Brown, Derrick Smith, and Luke Ford), but 3-4 every class, plugging specific gaps, is maybe a good way to go about it? Might even be something other programs like ours will want to copy?
It's a nice little sweet spot, is what I'm saying. We needed to overdo it this year, so let's maybe not do that again, but I think there will be more Derrick Smiths and Trevon Sidneys next year who are looking for some playing time. And the portal allows us to introduce ourselves moments after they decide to look elsewhere.
OK I gotta go. Sun came back out and it's time to head to the next Quaint Little Downtown. Might even get a shirt for myself.