Non-Mailbag Mailbag Question

May 01, 2020

I'm feeling quite prolific this week. Not sure why. But I suddenly feel like I have so much to say. I want to get to the Jones LLUOI, but first, I scrolled through my mentions this morning and have some thoughts on one question that was asked there. I didn't ask for mailbag questions, but let's treat it like a mailbag question.

First off, this was my tweet last night:

The reactions were quite diverse. Some took the tweet as "GO TEAM" (I even got a "LFG!" response). Some took the tweet as a spotlight on our recruiting failures. I didn't really have a message behind it - I was just updating my scholarship chart and realized that we had reached the point where 15% of the players started at a different school. For football, that's an insane number. And if you add junior college transfers (Nick Walker, Anthony Shipton, and Lavar Gardner), then the roster is 80/20. 80% high school recruits, 20% transfers. It's a seriously crazy number.

We knew this was coming, of course. Last year on Signing Day we left 6 scholarships open and we added Trevon Sidney, Wole Betiku, Josh Imatorbhebhe, Brandon Peters, Chase Brown, and Derrick Smith as transfers. Actually, we left seven scholarships open and added Devon Witherspoon as well.

This year, on Signing Day, we left 6 more scholarships open for transfers. We've now landed five of those six transfers - Christian Bell from Wisconsin, Desmond Dan from New Mexico State, Blake Jeresaty from Wofford, Brian Hightower from Miami, and Brevyn Jones from Mississippi State. That final scholarship will either go to another transfer or maybe another Witherspoon (a high school player who had academic issues in December but got them fixed by August) over the summer.

As I'm writing this, I realize that I probably should be more cynical. It's possible the staff didn't "leave scholarships open" for transfers the last two years. My most cynical friends would say that they got to Signing Day with 19 scholarships to give and could only find 13 high school players who said yes and that forced them to look elsewhere.

That's not how I view it, but it's worth discussing. My view - you didn't ask, but I'm going to tell you - is that "how would you like to transfer to Illinois?" is the new "how would you like an offer from Illinois?". We've certainly seen plenty of weekend-before-signing-day visits in the past where our final scholarships are given to Plan C players. Here I go off on another tangent.

Final recruiting weekend in 2017. There's no December signing date then, so everyone is getting ready to sign on the first Wednesday in February. The staff was waiting on one decision which they said they felt pretty good about (Bobby Roundtree), but they had missed on the safeties and defensive tackles they were chasing. And there were still five scholarships left to give. That final week, those scholarships went to Dawson DeGroot, Bennett Williams, Deon Pate, and Jamal Woods. Woods was flipped from Memphis, Pate was flipped from Appalachian State, DeGroot was flipped from Florida International, and Bennett Williams was offered (his first and only Power Five offer) and accepted.

The last several years, we don't really see that happening. There was one such offer in this class (Tahveon Nicholson, a prep school kid, offered on January 31st and signed on February 5th). I don't recall any attempted flips from G5 schools (like DeGroot, Woods, and Pate). It's my belief that those scholarships moved to the transfer pile. Meaning, we didn't land our top targets (Mookie Cooper, AJ Henning, Marcus Harper, Wesley Bailey), and instead of offering Plan B and Plan C high school recruits, the staff now turns to transfers.

I've started answering the question and I haven't even posted the question yet. Let's get to that. Under the tweet above was this comment:

This is a great way to frame the question. Mostly because I think the answer to all three questions is "yes". In lieu of recruiting? Absolutely. Is it strategy or the only way to get players? Uhh, both?

Let's go one by one.

Is this in lieu of recruiting?

I covered some of this yesterday (basically, "Lovie probably really likes the simplicity of recruiting the transfer portal") and some of this above (the portal replaces Plan C recruiting). But I think we have to start here: this is borne out of poor recruiting. And that's both in the short term and the long term.

Last year there were five transfers who played huge roles: Brandon Peters at quarterback, Richie Petitbon at offensive guard, Josh Imatorbhebhe at receiver, Wole Betiku at defensive end, and Milo Eifler at linebacker. Trevon Sidney would have been the sixth guy on that list (he caught 16 passes in 5 games before his injury against Minnesota on October 5th knocked him out for the season), but he didn't get the chance. So we'll call it five impact transfers, all in the starting lineup.

Why did we turn to Brandon Peters at quarterback? Because without him, we were heading into 2019, Lovie's fourth season, with three freshman quarterbacks: Matt Robinson, Coran Taylor, and Isaiah Williams. Had we landed Quincy Patterson or Brock Purdy, then we wouldn't have needed Peters.

The same goes for everyone else on that list. Ideally, it's Ayo Adeoye (Texas) at linebacker and the Milo Eifler transfer isn't necessary. If we land Izayah Green-May (Wisconsin), we probably don't chase Betiku. If Marquis Hayes (Oklahoma) is at right guard, Petitbon doesn't have to be. And on and on down the list.

So that has to be the starting point here. If you're chasing transfers to fill holes with upperclassmen, and we're chasing transfers to fill holes with upperclassmen, it's because you have holes. And you have holes because of recruiting failures. That seems very cut and dry.

Is it a strategy?

I think so. It's a backup strategy, as we just discussed, but I think it's intentional.

I've made it this far without "here's something I wrote back in 1981...", so I might as well break the seal and get to one of those. After watching seven or eight practices at training camp last summer, on August 16th, I wrote this:

I think Lovie sees transfers like NFL free agency

Lovie was always going to have an NFL bend to everything he does in college. That's his history, so that's how he's going to think. It's to be expected when hiring an NFL guy for a college job. It's helpful to have assistants around with deep college backgrounds, but that's a whole other topic and I'm already off course.

As I watched camp last week (specifically, as I was putting together my depth chart on Monday), I noticed how much play the transfers are getting. I knew that the transfers would be brought in and pushed to the front of the line fairly quickly, but I didn't realize they would all be in (or almost in) the starting lineup.

Which made me think about how this felt like an NFL training camp (yes, I attended a Rams training camp or two back in the day) and how you went there mostly to watch the rookies and the free agents. "Left guard was a mess last year - will it be the free agent guard signed from the Dolphins or the rookie we drafted from TCU?" Most often it was the free agent signed from the Dolphins.

And this feels a lot like that. I think both Trevon Sidney (if healthy) and Josh Imatorbhebhe might be in the starting lineup against Akron. Catching passes from Brandon Peters. Being blocked for by Richie Petitbon. And if Luke Ford were eligible, he'd be in there too. The answer to nearly every "we struggled there last year - will it be the rookie (2019 recruiting class) or the free agent (transfers) filling that spot?" has been "the transfer".

Which makes me wonder if this is the new normal? There are only 11 scholarship seniors on this team, which means that next year will be a smaller recruiting class again, and I'm very curious if Lovie will go crazy in the transfer portal yet again. I think he might view the transfer portal like he viewed the NFL free agent market? There were six transfers added in the offseason (Richie Petitbon from Alabama, Trevon Sidney, Josh Imatorbhebhe, and Wole Betiku from USC, Luke Ford from Georgia, and Chase Brown from Western Michigan), so perhaps Lovie might do the same thing again next offseason? Say the 2020 class ends up around 18 players or so - might it be 12 freshmen and six more transfers?

There's obviously a huge concern there with so few freshmen. You have to be building that foundation year after year. There's always the Kansas risk - Charlie Weis went crazy in the juco market and when David Beatty took over and all the jucos graduated Beatty was left with 39 scholarship players - so once you hop on the train you have to stay on. Again, those are probably issues for another post.

My point here: I get the feeling that Lovie feels much more comfortable with the current scenario. He's signed some free agents to fill some gaps while the rookies develop. And now it's time to go out and win some games.

That's a long way to say yes, I think it's a strategy. Specifically, I think the strategy is now this: in any given recruiting class, use 80% of the scholarships on freshmen to develop and 20% of the scholarship on transfers who will fill holes from previous recruiting classes. It's not ideal (there's that phrase again), but it's probably smart given all of our holes.

What's ideal? Players using the portal to leave, not to arrive. Penn State lost 16 players to the transfer portal between the end of the 2018 season and the beginning of the 2019 season. Is that the old "rats leaving a sinking ship" thing? Do players just hate James Franklin?

No, just the opposite. They have stiff competition for every position, and the players who aren't winning the starting job are looking elsewhere. That's a healthy football program. You don't need the portal to fill holes - you need the portal to create holes so you can bring in more four-stars.

Now, I don't expect an Illinois coach to just immediately start recruiting like Penn State. I do expect Illinois basketball recruiting to immediately return to top-15 classes (because of our history), but that's not really possible for Illinois football. It's always going to be at least one tier below that. Even Wisconsin and Iowa struggle to break through to that tier, and that's after 20+ years of winning.

But that's the best use of the portal. Have so many great players that people don't want to stick around, not "we have so many holes that we're gonna need some transfers to fill them".

Is it the only way to get better players?

Certainly seems like it. I haven't made my 90 Illini list yet (the most important players for the season), but when I do, I wonder how many of the top-20 will be transfers? I have to think Peters, Imatorbhebhe, Eifler, Ford, Sidney, Smith, Navarro, and Jeresaty will all be on there. So eight of your top 20 players come from the transfer market?

Look at it like this: Is it the only way for bad programs like Illinois to get better players? That's somewhat true (great high school players don't consider bad programs like Kansas and Illinois and Oregon State but might on the second time around), but you don't have to look far to see a bad program like Rutgers selling Schiano and landing recruits. And even Herm Edwards has been able to (somehow) sell his NFL-ness and land high school recruits.

Is the transfer market the only way for this staff to land better players? As stated above, it sure seems like it. They've landed the spot four-star recruit (Beason and IW and Verdis and Avery), but overall, their best success has come on the second time around (Betiku and Bhebhe and Ford and Eifler).

Which leads to the obvious question: keep doing it every year? I say yes. Lean into it.

I won't link my Sweet Spot article again (I just did that yesterday), but I wrote in September that this could be our Thing. Mike White put us in the Rose Bowl how? California jucos. That was his whole thing in the early 1980's. There's a ton of talent in the junior college ranks and not enough teams lean into it. So he rebuilt Illinois with juco-heavy recruiting classes. We've seen the same from Bill Snyder (twice) at Kansas State. It became his thing, and that made the top jucos all consider K-State first ("I can go there and I can start").

It's not the ideal situation - the ideal situation is this weird concept where you simply recruit good players and win a lot of football games with focused, disciplined systems. And there's similar "cliff" concerns just like the juco market. Charlie Weis tried to mimic K-State at Kansas, recruited all these juco kids, it failed miserably, the juco kids graduated (they grow up and leave so fast), and David Beatty took over a program with 39 scholarship players. Just like juco, once you hop on the "we'll have this guy for two years and then he's gone" train, you have to keep feeding your transfer addiction because cold turkey is hell.

But given where we sit on May 1, 2020 with Lovie Smith entering his 5th season at the helm coming off a bowl game with 16 starters returning but a whole bunch of graduations coming up and not much depth, I say lean into it. The portal has exploded the last few years, for both football and basketball, and some team is going to be the Iowa-State-under-Fred-Hoiberg of college football, so why not us?

The principle is simple, I think. At the blue blood programs, many players don't see the field until year three (or sometimes year four). Sometimes that's because they're just not any good, but sometimes it's as simple as "they need three years of strength and agility training if they want to beat out all the other talent on this roster". If you can catch those players at just the right time - Josh Imatorbhebhe was going to catch 35 passes at USC in 2019, but he just couldn't wait any longer so he put his name in the transfer portal - then you can increase your talent level significantly.

And the trend is likely to continue. I read somewhere that more players announced that they were transferring after the 2019 season than any season in college football history, and if the one-time transfer without sitting out rule is approved (looks like it will be tabled this year because of coronavirus), it will explode even further. It's not a bad time to position yourself as a "come to Illinois and show your former coach what he was missing by benching you" school.

Again, there are risks, and they're similar to the K-State juco thing. Every juco brought to K-State to plug a roster hole is taking the scholarship of a high school player who could be developed in your system. So you're forced to just keep plugging with jucos. It's the same with transfers. In that article I linked above (from August), I hypothesized a class of 18 with the staff holding six scholarships for transfers. It turned out to be a class of 19 with the class holding six scholarships for transfers. Ideally, Desmond Dan is AJ Henning and we don't need Christian Bell because we landed Joe Moore. Henning and Moore give Illinois 2-3 great seasons instead of Dan and Bell being bit players filling holes (and needing to be immediately replaced with more transfers). Henning & Moore + four other impact recruits instead of the six transfers - that's ideal.

And we have to acknowledge what happens if there's a coaching change and the next coach isn't plugging holes with transfers. It's the same as "Beckman was recruiting jucos, Cubit didn't, Lovie isn't". Those jucos graduate and the hole they leave is filled by freshmen because you were recruiting jucos, not freshmen who are in your system and developing. There's 85 scholarships and 22 positions, so obviously it's not as cut and dried as that, but the risk of leaning on transfers needs to be acknowledged here. It leaves an unstable environment for the next coach. If you're an athletic director, you have to be watching the long-term program stability, not just the current results.

That said, and given where we sit, this... isn't an awful Plan B? We just won 4 Big Ten games for only the 5th time in the last 25 seasons (2001 was 7 B1G wins, 2007 was 6, and 2002, 2010, and 2019 were 4 - the other 20 seasons were all 3, 2, 1, or 0 conference wins), and we did that on the backs of these transfers. And now we have the chance to win at least four Big Ten games in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2001-2002. And we'd be doing that with these transfers plus an all-growns-up 2017 recruiting class.

So I say go for it. What do we have to lose? (Crap - I guess I just listed a lot we have to lose.) The depth chart I put together on Monday had 13 seniors starting (plus a senior kicker and a senior punter), so maybe the 2021 class should include at least 6 immediately eligible transfers to help soften the blow. The normal college football wisdom when you have so many seniors graduating is "sounds like the next class will need some jucos", but maybe "transfer" is the new "juco".

At least that seems to be the case in Champaign.


iluvrt on May 01 @ 10:21 PM CDT

Good article and point of view. I am so sick of the sky is falling types that clog up Illini sport threads every time a recruit with a UI scholarship goes somewhere else. Agree it is not great on the HS front right now, but December is a ways away yet,

Illiniiniowa on May 02 @ 11:26 AM CDT

I also think it's worth noting that a lot of these transfers are multi year guys including several with three years remaining. A transfer with a sit out year and three to play is add good as a big school recruit for providing continuity and system building.

INDYPAUL1954 on May 03 @ 09:12 PM CDT

I see LS utilizing the changes in CFB recruiting to the ILLINI advantage:

Some % of all FROSH recruits do not work out in the top three depth chart. They may look good in HS but have peaked and do not fit for whatever reason (system, grades, competition, ..). It would be a great study for someone who has access to data to compile the % of FR recruited who actually play a substantial amount of time while in college!! Transfers have at least competed at the next level, are more physically developed, and hopefully more mature. Also have made the transition from HS to CFB so that is behind them. The talent level for these transfers is clearly higher than what UI can attract NOW - improve the roster and win more games and get more attention and push for more higher skilled HS players.

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