The Transfer Thing

May 19, 2020

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I've been reading some of the State of the Program articles that The Athletic has been putting out (no, the Illinois one hasn't been posted yet). These are subscription articles, so I can't really link to what they've been saying, but I can show you the chart that they put together for each team as part of their program evaluation. It tracks recruiting results with on-the-field results. Here's an example of the one for Boston College:

The blue line is the team's Massey Composite ranking (which takes 103 different college football rankings and puts them all together as one ranking - Illinois was #73 last season). The red line is the 247 Composite ranking for recruiting classes (which takes three different recruiting rankings - Rivals, ESPN, and 247 - and combines them into one ranking). The chart basically shows if you're underperforming or overperforming based on your recruiting classes. The four Boston College classes: 67th, 71st, 64th, 64th. And that tracks with 247's Team Talent Composite Rankings. They're 65th when you combine the recruiting rankings of every player on their roster and compare it to every other school. (Note: that's the ranking from 2019 - there are no Team Talent Composite Rankings for 2020 yet.)

What will that chart look like for Illinois? You know where this is going because I've talked about it before. The last four recruiting classes have ranked 46th, 54th, 53rd, and 88th. The year before Lovie arrived (the Cubit class) was 73rd. Does that track with the Team Talent Composite? Uh, no. Last year Illinois was 37th. How do you take four recruiting classes - 73rd, then 46th, then 54th, then 53rd - and end up with the 37th-most "talented" roster in 2019? Transfers, of course.

If you read my writing regularly, this isn't a surprise to you. I've written about this many times. There are obvious flaws to a "composite talent" list like that, given that Illinois gets credit for a 5-star recruit like Wole Betiku when he obviously didn't perform like a 5-star at USC (hence the transfer down to Illinois). But, given that there are still 5-star "busts" on the rosters at Georgia and LSU, and they get "credit" for them, the overall intent still holds, I think. Of the 85 players you have to work with, where do they stack up when compared to other rosters? For Illinois, last season, the answer was "37th".

OK, so that lays the groundwork here (and I didn't even have to cut-and-paste something I've written before!). Now let's get to where I'm headed with this post. Namely, I don't think recruiting class rankings will be able to exist without including transfers for much longer. They didn't really ask me for advice, but if I'm Shannon Terry of 247, there's no way I could see my data being used on a chart like that (the one linked above from The Athletic) when I know there's such a large hole in the bucket.

When The Athletic does the "State Of The Program" article for Illinois, the red line on the chart will track from 46th to 54th to 53rd to 88th. But that "53rd" won't include seven players added that offseason and the "88th" won't include eight players added this offseason.

Here's my depth chart for this fall. Players in bold are the players that all of these "rankings" don't believe exist on the Illinois roster.

QB | Peters (SR) | Williams (rs-FR) | Robinson (SO)
RB | Epstein (rs-JR) | Bonner (SR) | C. Brown (rs-SO) | Norwood (SO)
TE | Ford (rs-SO) | Barker (JR) | Moore (rs-FR)
LT | Lowe (SR) | Cerny (SR) | Sparks (FR)
LG | K. Green (JR) | Slaughter (rs-SO) | Jones (rs-FR)
C | Kramer (SR) | Plohr (rs-FR) | Engel (SO-walkon)
RG | Jeresaty (SR) | V. Brown (rs-SO) | Tyler (FR)
RT | Palczewski (SR) | Pearl (rs-SO) | Kirts (rs-FR)
WR1 | Navarro (JR) | Cumby (rs-FR) | Holmes (JR-walkon)
WR2 | Smalling (SR) | Sidney (SR) | Dan (SR)
WR3 | Imatorbhebhe (SR) | Washington (SO) | Campbell (SO)
WDE | Gay (SR) | Bell (SR) | Coleman (rs-FR)
DT | Woods (JR) | Pate (JR) | Shipton (JR)
DT | Avery (JR) | Udeogu (SR) | Okpala (rs-FR)
SDE | Carney (SR) | Randolph (rs-FR) | Davis (FR)
WLB | Tolson (JR) | Cooper (rs-FR) | Coghlan (JR-walkon)
MLB | Hansen (SR) | T. Barnes (SO) | McEachern (SO-walkon)
SLB | Eifler (SR) | DeGroot (SR) | Gardner (JR)
CB | Hobbs (SR) | Witherspoon (SO) | Thompson (rs-FR)
SS | S. Brown (JR) | Ware (JR) | Joseph (JR)
FS | T. Smith (JR) | D. Smith (JR) | Martin (JR)
CB | Adams (SR) | Beason (rs-FR) | N. Walker (SR)

Am I the only one who thinks that's crazy? Seven of the 22 starters listed here were transfers, yet all these "talent evaluations" are happening without even considering that those players exist. I'm not talking about full roster breakdowns of course - just the class by class breakdowns. You know, the class rankings that are cited every day everywhere including the State Of The Program evaluations discussed above.

I'll say that another way: in 2018, on the Team Talent Composite Rankings, Illinois was 61st. In one offseason, using the same numbers produced by the same website, Illinois jumped to 37th. This translated to better play on the field - from 4-8 (2-7) to 6-6 (4-5). In the SP+, Illinois jumped from 97th to 61st. Yes, part of that was a young team starting to mature, but part was also the talent boost from the transfers. No, Wole Betiku was no longer a 5-star. But with Bobby Roundtree's injury, Betiku was a much-needed edge rusher who provided more than any of the defensive ends on the current roster.

What I'm getting at: recruiting class rankings are intentionally blind. They take out all of the "this quarterback we landed is way better than his ranking" and just plainly look at the Purdue class next to the Illinois class. Rate every player, see where you land. That's what The Athletic is trying to do there: here's how Boston College recruited; here's how Boston College performed.

But if you don't include transfers, you're not coming close to getting an accurate picture of a "recruiting class". Basically, for Illinois, you're pretending that the 2020 Illini team is Matt Robinson throwing to Daniel Barker and Casey Washington, not Brandon Peters throwing to Luke Ford and Josh Imatorbhebhe. And I don't say that as any disrespect to someone like Daniel Barker who has far outplayed his recruiting ranking. I'm just saying the numbers consider Illinois to be a team with a low 3-star QB throwing to a low 3-star TE and a low 3-star WR, not a team with a 4-star QB throwing to a 4-star WR and a 4-star TE.

And this isn't just Illinois. As you know, the transfer portal has meant that transfers have grown exponentially. As of today, I count 174 players transferring to Power Five schools on the 247 Transfer Portal page. This is just P5 - I'm not counting players transferring to Boise State or Cincinnati. 174 players (so far) have transferred to SEC/ACC/B1G/Big12/Pac12 schools, with many big names (like JT Daniels and Ricky Slade) still making their decisions.

So if the average P5 program is going to add three transfers per year now (and that number is likely to grow), that's a very large number of players on rosters across the country who won't be counted in the recruiting rankings. And at Illinois, the way Lovie has leaned into the portal, there will be upwards of 20 transfers on the roster soon. So how can you have recruiting class rankings without them?

It would be very easy to do, I think. 247 had already started to list the transfers on the recruiting class pages. And they've begun to re-rank some of the transfers to give them a more accurate post-transfer score. All they would need to do is make sure that all of the transfers get a new rating and then add them to the class total.

I gave an example of this in my last post on this subject. In fact, since I wrote that post, 247 did assign a "transfer rating" for five of the Illini transfers. Blake Jeresaty transferred up from Wofford (where he was an FCS All American) so he was assigned a new rating of .8600. Christian Bell transferred from Wisconsin (where he couldn't crack the lineup) so his rating was dropped to .8400.

With those numbers, and with TreSean Smith and Chinedu Odeogu added since that post (finishing off the 2020 class), we can now get an unbiased, true ranking of the 2020 Illini recruiting class. The one listed as "88th" above. In my last post, I assigned my own rating for these players, but since 247 has since done the same (for most, not all), I'll just use their numbers. Here's the updated methodology.

  1. When I did this exercise, I had included both Chase Brown and Derrick Smith as part of the 2020 class since they joined last August. For whatever reason, 247 lists Chase Brown as part of the 2019 class and Derrick Smith as part of the 2020 class. So we'll go with that and leave Brown off. That would boost the numbers for the 2019 class a little bit, but whatever - we're focused on 2020 here.
  2. 247 has now assigned new ratings (post-transfer) for five of the eight Illini transfers. Brian Hightower was dropped to .8500, Blake Jeresaty was bumped to .8600, Brevyn Jones was bumped to .8400, Derrick Smith was dropped to .8000, and Christian Bell was dropped to .8400.
  3. For the other three transfers, I'll leave them at their high school rating. TreSean Smith was .8613 (he was a 4-star on 247 but a low 3-star on Rivals), Chinedu Odeogu was .8090, and Desmond Dan was .7783.

I'll do the same as I did in that other post (where I was the one assigning re-ranks for each of the players) - using the Class Calculator, I'll add a player in that class with the exact same rating as the transfer we added. For example, instead of Blake Jeresaty (.8600) I'll add Akelo Stone (.8601) who is headed to Georgia Tech. The reason: the class calculator doesn't allow you to take a player from the 2016 class and add them to 2020.

Here's the ratings for the full class:

James Frenchie .8864
Reggie Love .8844
TreSean Smith .8613
Tre'Von Riggins .8613
Blake Jeresaty .8600
Cooper Davis .8567
Deuce Spann .8566
Johnny Newton .8519
Anthony Shipton .8506
Brian Hightower .8500
Phifer Griffin .8424
Lavar Gardner .8420
Kevin Tyler .8411
Christian Bell .8400
Brevyn Jones .8400
Quinton McCoy .8336
Blaise Sparks .8247
Chinedu Odeogu .8090
Tahveon Nicholson .8056
Derrick Smith .8000
Desmond Dan .7783

2020 original point total and ranking: 152.90, 88th nationally
2020 point total and ranking once I added the eight transfers to the class: 179.14, 56th nationally

When I did the exercise in that other post I had it 51st (I had included Chase Brown), plus I had Hightower at .8800 and not .8500, so this all looks about right. When The Athletic does their State Of The Program for Illinois, the red line will dip to 88th for 2020. It shouldn't. It should stay even at 56th.

And yes, when you do this exercise for 2019, that class climbs into the top-30 with Ford, Peters, and Bhebhe being added to Beason, Williams, and Cooper, meaning the red line on the chart should actually spike in 2019, but that's another topic. Actually, it's this same topic so I should probably recap here. I dropped Peters from .9684 to .8900, I dropped Betiku from .9884 to .8700, I dropped Bhebhe from .9314 to .9000, I dropped Sidney from .9360 to .8500, I dropped Petitbon from .9696 to .8500, and I dropped Milo Eifler from .9368 to .8800 and the class still jumped to 27th nationally. If I kept them all at their original high school ratings, the class would jump to what - 20th or so? My point: 2019 was the best injection of talent since 2009 and nobody knows or cares because it was the "53rd best recruiting class". All because transfers are treated the same as walkons in the recruiting class rankings.

Again, many transfers should and do see their high school rating drop. I dropped every single player in that last paragraph. Some player doesn't cut it at Florida State or Oregon so they transfer down to to Wake Forest or Colorado - a level of football where they might play. There are some players who transfer for personal reasons and shouldn't be considered like that (Luke Ford) and there are some who transfer because they were an All American at a lower level and they want to give big boy ball a shot (Blake Jeresaty). But for the most part, the ratings will be lower.

But "lower" to a place like Illinois might still mean "better than anyone we have on our roster". Peters was immediately our best quarterback, Bhebhe was immediately our best wide receiver, Eifler and Betiku and Petitbon immediately went into the starting lineup, and the same is probably going to happen this fall with TreSean Smith and Blake Jeresaty and Luke Ford.

If we're going to do such a thing as rank recruiting classes, then transfers should absolutely be included. Maryland has added Taulia Tagovailoa from Alabama plus transfers from Michigan and Virginia Tech. Rutgers has added nine transfers from schools like Michigan, Ohio State, Baylor, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Baylor. Arkansas went out and got a quarterback from Florida, a defensive end from Clemson, and a linebacker from Oklahoma.

So why do Rivals and 247 still act like these players don't exist?


DB50 on May 20, 2020 @ 10:09 AM

The biggest disadvantage I see in transfer portal players is you only have them for one to two years in most cases. If you lean on the TP yearly as a main source of talent in your program, you are yearly trying to fill holes due to graduation. The upside is an athlete who is both physically & mentally both ready for the P5 jump and can be plugged into whatever position is weakest. Will it work? Possibly, especially with the NCAA looking in January at visiting the one-time transfer rule.

Robert on May 20, 2020 @ 04:21 PM

Yes. Totally agree. For starters, this must always be viewed as Plan B. The holes being filled with these eight transfers are no longer "Beckman and Cubit left me with nothing" holes, they are "the 2017 and 2018 classes didn't have enough depth" holes. If Lovie adds more P5 safeties than just Sydney Brown in the 2018 class, he wouldn't need Derrick Smith and TreSean Smith in 2020.

But given that college programs have long done this with jucos (recruit your classes, develop your players, and when you find holes, fill them with jucos), I do think it's something that can be sustained in the age of the Portal. It's dangerous - Kansas State made it work with jucos, Kansas destroyed their program for the better part of a decade - but if you're managing the 65 high school guys in development well, you can work with 20 transfers and boost the talent level. Especially, like you said, if the sit-out restriction is lifted.

Our Success Equals The Knowledge on May 20, 2020 @ 02:02 PM

Enjoyed the piece. One thing I'll point out, the recalculation exercise is not fully complete because other teams' transfers were not taken into account. Essentially, we move up to 56 because we add 8 transfers, but teams 57-80 also could've received transfers that would bump up their calculation.

This would obviously be tedious to go through every team's transfers, however if you assume each team picked up 3 transfers and give them an average rating that reflects their 2020 class, you could find a more accurate rating for us. I'd guess we end up around 65th.

Robert on May 20, 2020 @ 04:05 PM

You are correct, and FWIW, I acknowledged that in my last post on this subject which was linked above:

The other complication here before I wrap this up: other schools aren't getting credit for their transfers. No other school is bringing in 14 transfers in two years, but some are bringing in 3 and then 2. Add those transfers to those classes, re-rank them accurately, and some of this "the class climbs to 27th nationally" probably drops to "the class climbs to 31st nationally" (or whatever). But this wasn't an attempt to re-rank the entire 2019 and 2020 recruiting classes. I just wanted to see where our classes would land once the transfers were added.

As for falling to 65th, I doubt that. Most schools are adding 2-3 transfers, not eight, so they wouldn't move all that much.

But yes, my overall point is that Rivals and 247 should absolutely include all those transfers for every school. It's a new world, and recruiting class rankings without transfers are more and more flawed every year.

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