The players are returning to campus. The Smith Center is re-opening for the first time since mid-March. Lovie's fifth team will have six weeks of conditioning and then, hopefully, in August, actual, live training camp.
Now that Lovie's first recruiting class will be true seniors and redshirt juniors, I think we can finally evaluate his roster. We have all the names, so we can simply look at the players he inherited and compare them to the players he has recruited.
First, a few notes.
- For starters, the roster isn't completely his just yet. 81 of the 85 players are Lovie recruits, but four Bill Cubit recruits remain from the 2016 class: Jake Cerny, Jake Hansen, Doug Kramer, and James McCourt. All were all recruited by Bill Cubit (actually, Cerny was recruited by Tim Beckman).
- Doug Kramer kind of doesn't count for this evaluation because Cubit didn't have room for him and offered him a grayshirt spot (skip college football for a year and then join the team in 2017). When Lovie arrived, some spots opened up and he offered Kramer a scholarship that fall. So he's kind of a combo recruit. We'll leave him out of this evaluation because he's partly Cubit (was likely going to take the grayshirt offer but could have still signed somewhere else) and partly Lovie (was offered, and accepted, a four-year ride after Lovie got the job and evaluated him).
- I think it's best to leave the 2016 seniors out of this evaluation. Mostly because Lovie only coached them from March to November and then they all graduated. Those players speak to how 2016 probably should have been better (needed a better pass rush with Duwaune Smoot and Carroll Phillips on the roster), but it doesn't mean much for what I'm getting at here. What I'm getting at here probably needs it's own bullet point.
- Lovie played 22 true freshmen in 2017. He was very blunt at the time, saying that these were the players who had earned their starting spots over the upperclassmen. It seemed fairly crazy at the time, a coach playing that many freshmen all at the same time, but it was clear he wasn't going for the "play the upperclassmen I inherited" kind of rebuild (like Jeff Brohm at Purdue) - he was going for the "start over" rebuild. And when evaluating a start-over rebuild like that, I think the best way to do it is to evaluate the roster turnover. "Lovie chose to bench (senior) and (junior) and take his lumps by playing (freshman)." Was that the right move? Or should he have played the other guys while developing his freshmen at practice?
The best way to do that: go position by position and look at who he passed over in favor of playing the kids.
Inherited: Chayce Crouch, Jeff George Jr, Eli Peters
Lovie brought in: AJ Bush, Brandon Peters, Isaiah Williams, Matt Robinson, Coran Taylor, Deuce Spann
Added but already gone: MJ Rivers, Cam Thomas
I think the quarterback room has improved significantly. Eli Peters immediately bailed for Toledo when he saw this wouldn't be Cubit's offense, Crouch had the shoulder issues, and JGjr never materialized. After some attempts to go with freshmen (Cam Thomas and then MJ Rivers), transfers became all the rage (AJ Bush and then Brandon Peters). After Peters graduates, 2021 becomes a battle between Isaiah Williams, Deuce Spann, Coran Taylor, and Matt Robinson.
Inherited: Dre Brown, Reggie Corbin, Kendrick Foster, Tre Nation, Ke'Shawn Vaughn
Lovie brought in: Ra'Von Bonner, Mike Epstein, Jakari Norwood, Kenyon Sims, Chase Brown, Nick Fedanzo, Reggie Love
Added but already gone: none
This one is probably the exact opposite. Lovie was left with about as solid a running back room as you can get. We saw the last two years what Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown could do, and Ke'Shawn Vaughn transferred to Vandy, was an all-SEC performer, and was just drafted by the Buccaneers in the third round.
I don't think Lovie can come up with three names to match that from his four recruiting classes. Mike Epstein looks like the real deal but hasn't been able to stay healthy. Bonner, Norwood, and Sims haven't done much. Chase Brown looks promising but we shall see. Fedanzo is a redshirt freshman and Love a freshman so we don't know much yet. But as much as quarterback is "improved the room", running back is "didn't improve the room".
Inherited: Ainslie Johnson, Zarrian Holcombe, Andrew Trainer, Griffin Palmer
Lovie brought in: Daniel Barker, Luke Ford, Griffin Moore
Added but already gone: Louis Dorsey
Aaand we swing back the other way. Barker and Ford are massive upgrades over what was on the roster. If Dorsey hadn't been booted from the team, I'd argue that Ford-Barker-Dorsey would be the top Tight End room in the Big Ten. We don't know about Moore yet, but yes, this one is a massive upgrade.
Inherited: Dionte Taylor, Malik Turner, Mikey Dudek, Desmond Cain, Dom Thieman, Sam Mays, MJ McGriff
Lovie brought in: Ricky Smalling, Josh Imatorbhebhe, Trevon Sidney, Desmond Dan, Kendall Smith, Donny Navarro, Brian Hightower, Carlos Sandy, Edwin Carter, Dalevon Campbell, Kyron Cumby, James Frenchie
Added but already gone: Carmoni Green
It's not like tight end or quarterback, but this room has been improved. Lovie did inherit two outstanding receivers in Turner and Dudek, but Dudek's injury issues (ugh, why I did I have to remind myself?) meant that Lovie just didn't get much production from the seven names listed there.
And he got a big boost from transfers on his list. Bhebhe and Navarro carried the room last year. There's still a lot of TBD with the young kids, but at least on paper, Campbell, Cumby, and Frenchie look a lot more promising that Thieman, Mays, and McGriff.
Inherited: Christian DiLauro, Jordan Fagan, Zach Heath, Nick Allegretti, Adam Solomon, Gabe Megginson, Zeke Martin, Darta Lee, Jake Cerny, Kurt Gavin
Lovie brought in: Alex Palczewski, Vederian Lowe, Blake Jeresaty, Kendrick Green, Brevyn Jones, Jordyn Slaughter, Julian Pearl, Verdis Brown, Evan Kirts, Josh Plohr, Kevin Tyler, Blaise Sparks, Phifer Griffin
Kinda belongs on both lists: Doug Kramer
Added but already gone: Reuben Unije, Larry Boyd
I've talked about this a lot so I'm not sure we need to go to great lengths here. Why start four freshmen in 2017 when starting a freshman on the OL is usually a death sentence? Because Palcho, Lowe, Kramer, and Boyd were the best options given how the 2015 class (Megginson, Solomon, Martin, Fagan, Heath, Connor Brennan) had not provided any Big Ten starters.
Inherited: Henry McGrew, Sean Adesanya, Brandon Jones, James Crawford (as a linebacker), Ayo Shogbonyo (as a linebacker)
Lovie brought in: Owen Carney, Isaiah Gay, Marc Mondesir, Ezekiel Holmes, Keith Randolph, Seth Coleman, Cooper Davis
Added but already gone: Wole Betiku declared for the draft; don't really want to list Roundtree here because it hurts too much
I think this was clearly an upgrade. McGrew, Adesanya, and Jones just weren't going to work in this scheme. McGrew and Jones were both recruited for the old "Leo" position, and Lovie's defense doesn't have that position, so there wasn't much to work with. Lovie moved Crawford and Shogbonyo from OLB to DE and then played Roundtree, Carney, and Gay from the moment they set foot on campus. Transfers would have probably helped here, but again, Lovie didn't go about it like that. He simply turned to the true freshmen.
Inherited: Tito Odenigbo, Kenyon Jackson, Jamal Milan, Tymir Oliver
Lovie brought in: Chinedu Udeogu, Jamal Woods, Deon Pate, Calvin Avery, Anthony Shipton, Moses Okpala, Tre'Von Riggins, Johnny Newton, Quinton McCoy
Added but already gone: Lere Oladipo
This one goes back the other way. He inherited two starters (Jamal Milan and Tymir Oliver) and I'm not sure he's recruited two certain starters? Lere Oladipo showed the most promise in practice, but he was kicked off the team. Calvin Avery was a 4-star recruit, but he hasn't gotten there yet. Jamal Woods has had trouble staying healthy, Okpala, Riggins, and Newton are all too young... I think it's clear that what was inherited is better than what's been added. Especially when you add in Odenigbo and Jackson.
Inherited: Julian Jones, Tre Watson, Justice Williams, Christion Abercrombie, Jake Hansen, Dele Harding
Lovie brought in: Del'Shawn Phillips (graduated), Milo Eifler, Dawson DeGroot, Khalan Tolson, Shammond Cooper, Tarique Barnes, Lavar Gardner
Added but already gone: Jacob Hollins
Slight edge to the "inherited" list because of Jake Hansen and Dele Harding. If there's one thing that Lovie inherited from the 2016 class (and there wasn't much), it was two starting Big Ten linebackers. And yes, I know that the "it's development!" crowd will say that Lovie's staff developed Harding and Hansen into Big Ten linebackers, but I never see it like that. I'm "maybe she's born with it", not "maybe it's Maybelline".
If we just look at recruiting rankings, the linebackers that Beckman brought in (Jones, Watson, Williams, and Abercrombie) fall far below the linebackers Lovie has recruited (Phillips, Eifler, Tolson, Cooper). But the two linebackers that Cubit added (Harding and Hansen) push the inherited list into a slight lead.
Inherited: Jaylen Dunlap, Ahmari Hayes, Chris James, Cam Watkins, Frank Sumpter, Harvey Clayton, Evan Jones
Lovie brought in: Tony Adams, Nate Hobbs, Nick Walker, Dylan Wyatt, Marquez Beason, Devon Witherspoon, Joseph Thompson, Taz Nicholson
Added but already gone: Ron Hardge
Extreme makeover, cornerback edition. This one really couldn't be more night and day. If we're ranking all of the players listed there, I don't think you get to the "inherited list" until #5 at the earliest. Adams, Hobbs, Beason, and Witherspoon would clearly be 1-2-3-4 (not in that order). We've gone from an FCS cornerback room to maybe the best foursome in the Big Ten West?
It's hard for me to properly emphasize things like this. Perhaps I should just make it harsh but simple. If our top three cornerbacks in 2019 were Sumpter, Clayton, and Jones instead of Hobbs, Adams, and Witherspoon, I don't think we go to a bowl game.
Inherited: Darwin Kelly, Julian Hylton, Patrick Nelson, Stanley Green
Lovie brought in: Sydney Brown, Quan Martin, TreSean Smith, Derrick Smith, Delano Ware, Kerby Joseph, James Knight
Added but already gone: Bennett Williams
Had Bennett Williams not been kicked off the team, this would be a no-brainer for the Lovie list. As it stands, I'll only give a "medium" edge to the Lovie list. And that's mostly because of the Smith transfers (TreSean and Derrick). Nelson and Green made an OK safety combination as sophomores in 2017. I think Brown and TreSean Smith will make a fantastic safety combination in 2020.
Inherited: Chase McLaughlin, David Reisner, James McCourt
Lovie brought in: Blake Hayes, Caleb Griffin
Added but already gone: none
No real complaints here. Beckman and Cubit left behind three solid placekickers but no punter. Lovie found Hayes, gave the job to McCourt (come on, Jimmy Boy!), and added Griffin who I think will be really solid in 2021 and 2022.
So where does this leave us? I see it this way:
Massive improvements to the room: quarterback, cornerback, tight end
Improved the room, but not by much: defensive end, wide receiver, safety, offensive line (OL would be higher, but what have you recruited for me lately?)
Didn't improve the room, but it's close: linebacker
Inherited roster was much better: running back, defensive tackle
As I compiled this list, I started writing down the "I'm gonna look elsewhere" players. Beckman/Cubit recruits who transferred after the first few years under Lovie because they didn't get playing time in Champaign. So I think we should go through those here.
Please note that I'm not including Tito Odenigbo (already had a two-strike count when he threw the flag at the official and that was that) and Pat Nelson (I was told that his scuffle with staffers on the sidelines at the end of the 2017 season was the final straw). And I'm not including Zarrian Holcombe and Darta Lee either - they were dismissed from the team after they were arrested. This is just a list of players on the roster when Lovie arrived who saw themselves passed up on the depth chart and chose to transfer out.
Tre Nation (transferred to Austin Peay)
MJ McGriff (transferred to Akron)
Chris James (transferred to Stephen F. Austin)
Sean Adesanya (transferred to Central Michigan)
Gabe Megginson (transferred to Illinois State)
Dom Thieman (transferred to Duquesne)
Julian Jones (transferred to Georgia State)
Tre Watson (transferred to Maryland)
Christion Abercrombie (transferred to Tennessee State)
Jeff George Jr (walked on at Michigan and then Pitt)
Chayce Crouch (retired from football - shoulder)
Henry McGrew (quit football as far as I can tell)
Frank Sumpter (transferred to Eastern Kentucky)
Harvey Clayton (transferred to Duquesne)
Julian Hylton (transferred to Southern Illinois)
Evan Jones (transferred to Georgia State)
Adam Solomon (transferred to Illinois State)
Zeke Martin (quit football as far as I can tell)
Cam Watkins (transferred to Vanderbilt)
Andrew Trainer (transferred to William & Mary)
Brandon Jones (medically retired from football)
Griffin Palmer (not sure if he's transferred anywhere)
Kurt Gavin (not sure if he's transferred anywhere)
Ayo Shogbonyo (on to grad school somewhere, no football)
That probably tells the story the best? Nick Allegretti was always going to hold down a spot on this offensive line from 2016 to 2018. But in 2017, instead of going with some of the older players on hand (Megginson, Solomon, Martin, Gavin), they went with four freshmen (Alex Palczewski, Vederian Lowe, Larry Boyd, and Doug Kramer). You can play that same game across several positions. Henry McGrew and Sean Adesanya were not going to be a pair of Big Ten defensive ends in this defense, so the job was immediately given to Bobby Roundtree, Owen Carney, and Isaiah Gay as true freshmen.
Another way to look at this: who vacated the scholarship and then who filled it? Let's just look at cornerback:
Dillan Cazley and Darius Mosely graduated after the 2016 season. Those two cornerback scholarships went to Nate Hobbs and Tony Adams. Then, the corners that would have been the upperclassmen the last few years (Chris James, Frank Sumpter, Harvey Clayton, and Evan Jones) all transferred out and those cornerback scholarships went to Dylan Wyatt, Marquez Beason, Joseph Thompson, and Devon Witherspoon. We don't know yet how those players will perform (well, we have a pretty good idea that Witherspoon will be really good), but that's how the roster turnover has gone.
We should also note that Lovie lost a fair number of his own players, from Bennett Williams, Louis Dorsey, and Lere Oladipo getting kicked off the team to Bobby Roundtree's injury and MJ Rivers' personal issues. Each time, Lovie has turned to transfers to fill those spots (Dorsey became Luke Ford, Williams became Derrick Smith, Larry Boyd turned into Richie Petitbon, Rivers' scholarship went to Brandon Peters, and so on). If we play follow the scholarship, I think we can see the replacements for the big transfer list above as well as the Lovie players dismissed/Lovie players who left list.
Looking at it from these angles, for me, brings the last four years into focus. Starting in 2017, at nearly every position, Lovie went with his own players because he didn't think he could win with the upperclassmen (we knew that). The transfer destinations of those players probably proved his point - these were not Big Ten players. Instead, he played the freshmen that season, went through an immediate roster overhaul (15 of the players on that long list above left after the 2017 season), and built his foundation that way.
In a way, it's not all that dissimilar to Brad Underwood between 2017/18 and 2018/19. That was his overhaul offseason with only four players returning for the 2018/19 season (plus eight newcomers). Had Lovie been hired in December instead of March, I think we would have seen it play out that same way (transferpalooza between Year One and Year Two), but instead, Lovie's first class played in Year Two and everyone left before Year Three.
We also know that of every player listed above as "inherited", only two (Nick Allegretti, KeShawn Vaughn) were NFL draft picks. The Illini have gone 0-fer in the draft four of the last seven years with only five picks total (after 20 draft picks the seven years before that) so yeah, with all the data in, we can probably declare the late-2010's Illini rosters the weakest since the 1970's.
The big question, then: is it changing? NFL Draft-wise, we'll begin to learn next spring (Lovie's first recruiting class will be seniors this fall). On the field, we should learn something too (we haven't been to a bowl and then improved the next season since 6-6 in 1991 became 6-5-1 in 1992). Yes, look it up - it's true. We haven't been to a bowl and then improved the next season in 28 years. Every single bowl was a peak.
Which means that history tells us this season will be worse than last year. And if that's the case and Lovie is fired, then the final question we're trying to answer here: is he at least leaving an improved roster for the next coach? This exercise tells me that these current names look a lot better than the inherited names, so I think it's true that the roster is being improved.
How much is it being improved? It's hard to scale right now. We first need to see that the second-half surge in 2019 wasn't a fluke. And then we need to see that 2020 to 2021 won't be a steep cliff and will simply be one step back before two more steps forward.
Basically, we need to see a program. For the first time in 30 years.