If You Ask Me A Question
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...be prepared for a really long answer. I'm that guy who doesn't realize you're only making conversation (or that you're really just looking for a yes or a no). The "sir, this is an Arby's" meme was made for me. My wife has developed a sixth sense for when I'm doing it and will cut me off after only a few words to prevent us both from seven minutes of rambling embarrassment. It's always something like this:
"It says 'shipment delayed' - do you think we'll get it before the weekend?"
"You know we were in this situation three times in the last four years. The first one, back in June of 2016, was very similar to this one in that..."
"I'm just asking if you think 'delayed' means days or weeks".
"Oh. Days, probably."
Those of us who process the world through comps are two things: 1) Very helpful. 2) Annoying. Ever watched Criminal Minds? The Dr. Spencer Reed character? That's the best way to describe me. Ask a simple question and off he goes with "the ancient Aztecs believed that...".
So don't ask me questions unless you want a really long answer. Now, if you DO want a long answer, well, you're probably going to enjoy IlliniBoard dot com. Basically, I've monetized my "the ancient Aztecs believed that..." ways. (Heh. "Monetized".)
Case in point: this comment from uofi08 under my last post (I think this is the second uofi08 question to make its way to the front page this month, so congrats on asking good questions).
I'm curious on your thoughts on if the coaching philosophy has changed or if it basically just got to "win now" mode with respect to young players vs transfers. The reason I bring that up is because there were some decent players that were benched for true freshman in Lovies first year. And while they're pretty good players now, that was not exactly the case at the time. Lowe was substantially worse than DiLauro. I don't think Palco or Boyd were better than Megginson or Schmidt. The freshman DL besides Roundtree were worse than the upperclassmen.
Fast forward to now and you're seeing transfers brought in for almost uncontested starting jobs. Are there really no linemen being developed to play guard? Or DE? Is the staff failing to develop their own guys or just changing philosophies where at the beginning of their tenure they threw young players in to learn on the job, but now they don't trust their own players so they have to chase transfers? What's the disconnect? I know it's a hot button issue but does this basically all boil down to recruiting? And could this over reliance on transfers be one of the reasons for the poor prep recruiting?
Thoughts? Oh, I have thoughts.
First, if you haven't read the post referenced there, you can read it here. It's going back to look at something I wrote in 2017 which talked about the 2020 team. The main conclusion I reached after going back: this 2020 team can basically be described as "the 2017 recruiting class plus transfers". So does that tell us everything we need to know about the 2018 and 2019 recruiting classes?
I see the comment as three questions:
1. Has the philosophy changed?
2. Are they looking at the 2018 and 2019 recruits and saying "nope, they're not going to work - let's find some transfers"?
3. How does this all relate to the current state of our HS recruiting efforts?
We'll go one by one. You might want to get a snack first.
Has the philosophy changed?
Yes. But I think the plan was to change philosophies? Meaning, "play the freshmen and build for the future" was first, followed by "supplement with upperclassmen and redshirt the freshmen" after that. I need to break all of this down.
I wrote a post last summer called "Construction Complete". Meaning, the building that Lovie was building was now "complete". We knew the schemes and the names of the players who would either win in 2019 and 2020 or lose and Lovie would be fired. This was the building he was putting together.
Actually, reading that post, I stated at the beginning that the post was "Part II" to something I had written earlier that week. So as we step down all the rungs of this ladder, perhaps the bottom rung is that post and then we can climb all the way back up to answer "has the philosophy changed?".
The Part I post there was something I wrote that I titled "Click". A rebuild like this, if it's working, often has a "click" moment. It's never linear. I explained it this way:
When looking through the comments on football posts, there seems to be a heavy focus on what players need to step up - Ricky Smalling needs to be the alpha dog #1 receiver, one of the new linebackers like Eifler or Cooper needs to come in and take over - but that's not really how I'm viewing this. I'm willing to discuss the details - I'm going to write 25,000+ words on the details - but really, with a rebuild like this (dump the upperclassmen, play the freshmen), you're looking for a bunch of players to start contributing out of nowhere.
Some names? OK. These are not predictions, but it would look something like...
- Dele Harding is suddenly our top linebacker and the anchor in the middle of the defense. A Whitney Mercilus situation where no one even knows his name the first three seasons and then in the fourth year, out of nowhere, he's The Guy. Three years of development on the field pays off.
- With Luke Ford ineligible for a season, out of nowhere comes Griffin Palmer. This staff didn't recruit him (Bill Cubit did), but Palmer, after three years on the sidelines, with maybe 2% of the fanbase able to identify his number (#81), starts catching pass after pass. Three years of development off the field pays off.
Harding was a hit. Palmer was a miss (although he did play a fair bit). But I'm happy that I laid it out that way, because it will help me answer this question now. The thing you need with a start-over rebuild is a CLICK. I explained it at the end of that post like this:
I'm speaking in generalities. I'm saying that the point behind rebuilding like this is a sudden click, often during the fourth season. It's not some quarterback putting the team on his shoulders, although that's often the narrative. And there are never expectations the season before. Vegas isn't predicting seven wins here.
It's simply a click. We, the fanbase, should expect a click. Not "you know, you can kind of see this team improving" - a click.
I've been patient. I've explained the slow motion rebuild as I've seen it the past three seasons. I've said "youngest team in college football" a hundred thousand times. And doing that has earned me my click badge. Which I will now lay on the table and shove towards Lovie.
One click, please.
I think we did see a "click", starting with the Wisconsin game. Bad bad bad, (almost lose to UConn, lose to Eastern Michigan), and then, out of nowhere, beat Wisconsin, Purdue, Rutgers, and Michigan State over four consecutive weeks. That was followed by a "good" loss at Iowa, an awful loss at home to Northwestern, and a loss to Cal in the Redbox Bowl to finish 6-7. You already know this so I'm not sure why I'm recapping it.
Part II of that post was the "Construction Complete" post I linked above. After writing about the needed "click", my thoughts all centered around "wow, we know basically every player name who will either succeed in pulling off a 'click' or fail". This was June of 2019, and we had just added Peters and Bhebhe, and so it felt like all the pieces were in place. We've assembled our Soapbox Derby car and now we just need to point it down the hill.
In that post, I also tried to address the "why". Meaning, why even discuss how it might still happen when it clearly wasn't happening (see: to 0, 63)? My answer: because of what Lovie was handed on March 6, 2016. I used this as my example:
Just look at, say, the defensive ends. Lovie recruited five defensive ends in his first recruiting class. Why? Because his 2017 DE depth chart was going to look like this:
WDE: Henry McGrew / Brandon Jones
SDE: Sean Adesanya / Brandon Roberts
The earliest that Lovie could fix that would be 2017 (he didn't get a 2016 recruiting class because he was hired in March). And at that point he has two options. Fix it with junior college players or fifth-year transfers (more or less what Chris Ash did at Rutgers) or fix it with freshmen. He chose to fix it with freshmen, take lumps, and then hopefully see a click later on.
Now I've finally climbed back up the ladder to "philosophies". And I always use Chris Ash (and sometimes Jeff Brohm) as my example here. Both Ash and Brohm, when they arrived at Rutgers and Purdue, turned to transfers. Boost the roster and start to win. For Ash, he added 12 FBS transfers (plus some jucos) in the first 20 months. What Lovie is doing now with transfers (eight last year, five this year), Ash did in 2016 and 2017. We're talking philosophies here, and when they both took over in 2016, I'd describe the Chris Ash philosophy as "plug the holes with transfers and win as soon as possible" and the Lovie Smith philosophy as "play the freshmen as soon as possible and try to win later, not now".
Ash's best team was his second team (4-8, three Big Ten wins), but then it fell completely apart after that. Jeff Brohm also turned to transfers - 12 grad transfers/juco transfers his first year - and it worked, boosting Purdue to 6-6 and a bowl game his first two seasons. He's backed off the transfers since then - he's quoted in that article as saying he's trying to be "a little less active" in the transfer market as they build for the future - and last year, with a younger team, Purdue dropped to 4-8.
If we look at Ash and Lovie (both hired the same year - Brohm was hired in 2017), I think we see two different rebuild philosophies. They're a little different because Ash could shape his first team (recruiting/transfers) while Lovie couldn't (got the job in March), but from the start they went about it differently. Lovie went way young (22 freshmen played in 2017), Ash tried to win "old" with transfers and playing his inherited upperclassmen.
There are a number of reasons why Ash failed, so don't just take this to mean "you have to start young if you want to rebuild a bad program". Brohm went 6-6 twice by turning to his upperclassmen + transfers + jucos, and he used that to boost recruiting, and, after last year's 4-8 once he'd pulled the band-aid off, he's hoping to bounce back in his fourth season. In fact, that's an interesting one to watch. Both Lovie and Brohm are 10-15 the last two seasons (Lovie 4-8 then 6-7, Brohm 6-7 then 4-8), so 2020 will be a really good "where is this headed?" for both rebuilds.
The obvious question here - did Lovie change philosophies? No transfers, play the kids, build for the future, and then, after three seasons of that, transferpalooza. My answer to that is.. it's complicated.
Since Blogging In The Age Of Quarantine for me is just "quote old posts and continue those thoughts", I'll quote something I quoted a few weeks ago (quoted quote of a quote!). After the 2018 season, with Lovie sitting at 9-27 in this "play the kids" rebuild, I said I was hoping to see transfers:
I'm hoping they hit the transfer market hard. Now is the time to go after that. First three years, develop the high schoolers and ignore jucos/5th-years. Years 4 and 5: work the transfer market like crazy. Win and then sell those wins to the next batch of recruits and maybe you can hang on (plugging those 2021 holes with transfers).
As I later surmised in another post (I'm not going to link it - even I have a limit on how many times I can quote myself), that whole "let's chase transfers" thing needs to be tied to recruiting shortcomings. If they hang onto Braeden Daniels in the 2018 class (he decommitted and flipped to Utah and is now starting there), they don't need to chase Blake Jeresaty in 2020. Each transfer now is a recruiting miss earlier.
So there's kind of two answers here. In a perfect world, a play-the-kids rebuild starts by playing all the freshmen the first year (second year in Lovie's case), then play as many of the next class as possible, then fill more holes with the third class, and so on. So far, under four years of Lovieball, it's been "play the first freshman class" followed by filling nearly every hole with a transfer. That means "the recruiting has sucked" right?
Well, yes and no. This is why I say that it's complicated. In those four years - between 2016 and today - the college football transfer market has exploded. It began to grow in the mid 2010's (the reason I keep going back to Chris Ash is because he was one of the first to really pursue double-digit transfers), and the NCAA soon saw a need to have a way for these kids to better announce their transfers than "tweet a photo of the compliance letter which allows other schools to contact them". That led to the Transfer Portal in October of 2018, and that led to the explosion. Eight months after the advent of the portal, this stat came out:
Michigan QB Brandon Peters entering the transfer portal means 17 of the top 25 QBs in the 2016 class have transferred.— Max Olson (@max_olson) May 4, 2019
So we can't just say that this philosophical shift is as simple as "2018 and 2019 classes weren't there, so they turned to transfers". That's part of it, but "there are maybe four-times as many transfers available in 2020 as there were in 2016, and that's worth paying attention to" is part of it as well. I guess I've moved on to answering the second question now....
2. Are they looking at the 2018 and 2019 recruits and saying "nope, they're not going to work - let's find some transfers"?
My answer is "yes and no". Let's use a few examples.
Richie Petitbon graduated. There is one position available on the offensive line: right guard. The options are:
+ 5th-year senior Jake Cerny (backup tackle, but he was the starter at guard in the Redbox Bowl with Doug Kramer injured - Kendrick Green slid over to center and Cerny started at guard)
+ 3rd-year redshirt sophomore Verdis Brown (a four-star recruit who is probably the eventual starter at right guard)
+ an immediately available transfer from the Transfer Portal
The staff turned to the transfer portal and added Blake Jeresaty. Does this mean they don't trust Verdis Brown? Maybe. Or it might just mean that they think Brown is still a year away and want to go with Jeresaty or Cerny and then start Brown once he's a junior in 2021.
Ayo Shogbonyo graduated after four years and left the program. This leaves weakside defensive end fairly thin. Isaiah Gay played more and more snaps as the season wore on last year, so he's the projected starter, but there's not much depth. The options are:
+ 4th-year senior Marc Mondesir. He was injured for much of 2019, but like Shogbonyo, he's an outside linebacker they've bulked up and asked to play WDE. Shogbonyo didn't break out until year four - might Mondesir do the same?
+ 2nd-year WDE Seth Coleman. He played in three games last fall and kept his redshirt so he's a rs-FR this season. He's clearly the future starter at the position, but is he ready now?
+ An immediately available transfer from the Transfer Portal
The staff turned to the transfer portal and added Christian Bell from Wisconsin. Does this mean they don't trust Mondesir or Coleman? Maybe, but it also might just be "Mondesir isn't the guy and Coleman isn't ready yet so let's add a transfer for 2020 and then turn it over to the other guys in 2021".
Perhaps the best way to answer this is to look at all the open spots (from starters graduating) and see how the staff is going about replacing those players. We went through Petitbon and Shogbonyo above. The others:
Reggie Corbin/Dre Brown ~> Mike Epstein (2017 recruit), Ra'Von Bonner (2017 recruit), Chase Brown (2019 transfer), and Reggie Love (2020 recruit)
Jamal Milan/Tymir Oliver ~> Jamal Woods (2017 recruit), Calvin Avery (2018 recruit), Deon Pate (2017 recruit), and Anthony Shipton (juco transfer)
Wole Betiku ~> Owen Carney (2017 recruit), Keith Randolph (2019 recruit), or Cooper Davis (2020 recruit).
Dele Harding ~> Khalan Tolson (2018 recruit), Tarique Barnes (2019 recruit), or Shammond Cooper (2019 recruit)
Stanley Green ~> Derrick Smith (2019 transfer), Delano Ware (2018 recruit), Kerby Joseph (2018 recruit), or Michael Marchese (2017 walkon)
Maybe it's better to look at this another way: the number of redshirts. Or the inverse: players who played as true freshmen and didn't redshirt. Lovie has had three recruiting classes on the sideline so far. The results:
2017 freshmen who played immediately: 21 (plus walkon Michael Marchese)
2018 freshmen who played immediately: 12 (plus walkon Jordan Holmes)
2019 freshmen who played immediately: 4 (plus walkon Bryce Barnes)
I think this gives us our best answer here. And perhaps gives us an exercise which might tell us what we want to know. What if the classes were jumbled? If the 2017 class arrived in 2019, would all but four have redshirted like we just saw? Meaning, did only four freshmen play last season because the class was awful or did only four freshmen play because of a "save their eligibility" philosophy?
A quick glance through the classes tells me we would have seen nearly the same thing. Some examples:
- Bobby Roundtree, Isaiah Gay, and Jamal Woods all started games in 2017. If this was the 2019 class arriving in 2017, I think you would have seen Keith Randolph, Seth Coleman, and Moses Okpala all start several games. Instead, all three redshirted last year. Conversely, I think both Woods and Gay would have redshirted if they arrived in 2019 because Coleman and Randolph would be third-year starters. Roundtree, as suggested in the original comment which you read 45 minutes ago, would likely have played either way because he was so talented.
- Vederian Lowe, Alex Palczewski, and Larry Boyd all started games on the offensive line as true freshmen. The 2018 linemen (Verdis Brown, Jordyn Slaughter, and Julian Pearl) all redshirted. If those two classes were flipped, would we see Brown and Slaughter about to enter their fourth season as starters while Palcho and Lowe were behind them as redshirt sophomores? Man, it's so hard to say. Brown was the highest-ranked recruit of all of them, but when I watch these guys in practice, the ranking is clearly 1. Palcho 2. Lowe 3. Brown 4. Slaughter.
- I can also find other individual examples as well. Kendall Smith played in 2017 while Kyron Cumby redshirted in 2019. Dawson DeGroot played as a true freshman while Shammond Cooper redshirted. Dylan Wyatt played in 2018 while Joseph Thompson redshirted in 2019 (as did Wyatt, for that matter).
My conclusion: flip the names around and, generally, you would have seen the same "lots of freshmen play, then less, then way less" format. I still believe the classes would rank 2017 as the best, then 2019, then 2018 (which holds with my average Tom Cruises, I believe), and the transfers push 2019 to "best class" (don't worry, I'm not going to link that 3,000 word post), but overall, this is my conclusion to this question:
- In 2017, every freshman was played out of necessity. That included players playing because they were clearly the most talented at their positions (Bobby Roundtree, Bennett Williams, Louis Dorsey, Mike Epstein, Alex Palczewski), but also players who were being baptized by fire. Phase I of the rebuild will be "build a great team in 2020 by having players with tons of experience".
- In 2019, it's almost as if the transfers were brought in to keep some redshirts on. Brandon Peters meant Isaiah Williams could redshirt. Wole Betiku meant Keith Randolph could redshirt. Milo Eifler meant Shammond Cooper could redshirt. Trevon Sidney meant Kyron Cumby could redshirt. If 2017 was "we need them all", 2019 was "let's redshirt as many as possible". Which would suggest that Phase II of the rebuild would be something like "2021, 2022, and 2022 will be built upon players who have been in development for several years". Baptized by, I don't know, being placed on ice.
Ron Turner didn't have a good Phase II. He played freshmen his first two seasons, built a very experienced team his fifth year (2001), but after that he went 5-7 and then 1-11. If Lovie were to win nine games with this 2020 squad, the plan, I'd guess, would be to avoid that 1-11 two years later. Sure, 2021 might be 5-7 after all those seniors graduate. But then climb right back up in 2022 with these players who have been in the development lab. Redshirt seniors Verdis Brown and Jordyn Slaughter blocking for redshirt junior Isaiah Williams (or whatever).
But that 2022 team would also need help from this all-important 2021 recruiting class. Which means it's time to get to #3:
How does this all relate to the current state of our HS recruiting efforts?
First off, let's establish it again: this 2021 class has to be good. After two very small recruiting classes, it's going to be a full class of 25, perhaps as many as 28 if they choose to backdate a few recruits. Which means that, like 2017, it will eventually make up a third of the overall roster. You can't have a third of your overall roster come from a really poor class. It will need a few impact players (to survive the cliff) as well as some long-term solutions (players like Alex Palczewski and Kendrick Green and Nate Hobbs and Tony Adams who will seemingly be around forever).
With that established, I'm going to copy uofi08's specific question, not my paraphrase:
And could this over reliance on transfers be one of the reasons for the poor prep recruiting?
I could read that specific question two ways. One, "are they spending too much time chasing transfers and not enough time on high school recruits?" And two, "are high school recruits turned off by the fact that this staff prioritizes transfers?". Perhaps a better way to say that is "do opposing coaches tell recruits 'don't go to Illinois - they'll just recruit over you with a transfer'?" I'll try to answer both.
For the first question, it's something Nate texted me about just yesterday. He actually sent me a screenshot of a text conversation with an Illini buddy and said "what you're currently writing about is the same thing I've been pondering in texts with friends". (See why he writes for the site? A conversation based on a screencap of a quote in another conversation. Perfect.)
His question: is it a time thing? Is the reason Lovie classes are so late-starting because the staff is focused on the transfer portal?
I think that's somewhat true. All we learned about in March and April were the transfers for 2020 (Bell, Jeresaty, Hightower, Jones, Dan) and no 2021 recruits. In fact, there were zero high school commitments between Samari Collier in early December and Prince Green in early May. So on the surface, yes, that appears to be the case. The focus in March and April is on the transfer portal.
But it's not like there weren't high school offers out there. There were players with the Illini in their "final five" or whatever who picked other schools. That's as simple as "the other coaches recruited the kid better than our coaches".
Was it some Jerry Maguire situation where Kush (some 2021 recruit we want) was signing with Bob Sugar while we're walking Rod Tidwell around the lobby of the hotel (focused on 2020 transfers)? Maybe a little. I was at one spring practice last year where the focus recruiting-wise was clearly on Trevon Sidney and Wole Betiku (plus a few other potential transfers who were visiting). I'm guessing that had I attended a Minnesota practice that day, I'd have seen the focus on lots of high school recruits on campus (and zero transfers). So there's probably some truth to that.
But there are still high school recruits who are the focus. Go look through Travion Ford's Twitter timeline. He tweeted so many things that our staff sent him. He even tweeted screencaps of Zoom meetings with our recruiting staff:
-- Travion Ford ® (@Tre_Got_Skills) April 22, 2020
...and then he picked Missouri. We had been recruiting him for years, Eli Drinkwitz got the job in December, and Ford picked the Star Trek dork Missouri coach over Super Bowl coach Lovie Smith. That's not effort or focus or patience or "March and April are spent chasing transfers". That's simply called a recruiting whiff.
But this is football and not basketball. Whiff on Jalen Brunson and you cost yourself a job. Whiff on Travion Ford and there are still a dozen other weakside defensive ends in his class who would provide similar results. Basketball is "land 2 or 3 stars". Football is "increase the overall talent level so that the 45-50 guys who get on the field every Saturday are not overmatched". That's why, over time, I've become a "evaluate who you land, not who you missed on" recruiting follower. In the 2019 class, we offered 199 players and landed 14 for a 7% hit rate. And that 7% hit rate filled out the class. So it's really tough to get focused on who you miss when you're going to miss on 93% of your offers. Specific areas, yes - Ford was the best player in St. Louis and is at a high school where Cory Patterson is close friends with the head coach - but overall, I mostly wait to see the names of the commits.
(And I should note - that's not just Illinois. Tennessee landed the #13 class in 2019 and "missed" on 424 of the 447 players they offered. So lamenting individual players lost to other schools eventually became this "wait, why do I focus on this?" thing for me.)
The second way to look at that question: is our reputation as Transfer Portal U hurting our sales pitch to high schoolers? I don't think so, but I guess I can't say "absolutely not". Joe Moore was at that practice the weekend Wole Betiku was visiting, so maybe he saw us chasing a transfer at his position and felt like that might stunt his growth? I don't know. I'm having trouble seeing that being a deciding factor.
Of course, I am curious to see how this affects high school QB recruiting. So many QB's have been "transferred over" in the last few years (including Brandon Peters when Michigan went out and got Shea Patterson) that you have to think some high school QB's are more cautious about where they go. "I'll be given a legit shot at the starting job there" has to eventually move to "why would I go there if they're just going to chase the top QB transfers every year", right?
So maybe that line of thinking works its way all the way down to an offensive lineman considering Illinois who sees that the last two holes on the line were filled with fifth-year transfers. Even as I'm typing that, though, I just can't see that happening. I just can't see Illini football starting positions ever being viewed as scarce. The offer of eventual playing time fountain hasn't stopped flowing in Champaign for 30 years.
"How does this all relate to the current state of our HS recruiting efforts"? I guess my answer is "only in the sense that this class of 25 might be viewed as a class of 16 high schoolers plus 9 transfers which means that the staff isn't as eager to fill the rides right now as we might think". Heck, with so many seniors graduating (holes to plug), maybe they're looking at it as 13 high schoolers and 12 transfers. That would be a mistake, in my view - every college football program must have a foundation - but maybe the lure of the portal is so strong that the staff might be thinking about 50/50 classes in the future.
My brain just gave me the "four fingers pointed towards the neck moving back and forth" signal (you know, "cut it off"), so I think I'm done with this post. Let me do a quick word count...
4,818 words. Good Lord. I can barely remember what I was trying to say when I started this post. Let me check the top. Right: Lovie's recruiting philosophy.
See, the ancient Aztecs believed.......