Tracking Tom Cruises

Jun 30, 2020

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Let's just get this out of the way. What I'm about to do here is just about the dumbest thing I've ever done. I'm going to analyze my own analysis. I'm going to go over a bunch of data and then tell you what I think that data means, and that data was produced by.. me. Which means that if I wanted to build a narrative, all I'd have to do is shade the data towards my narrative.

I'll try to explain. Say I didn't like Brad Underwood as the basketball coach. I try not to have any opinions on any of that beyond "he deserves more time to continue to build the program" or "he has been given enough time and failed to build a program" (Underwood is obviously "A" right now), but whatever. If I didn't like Underwood, I could give Luke Goode 1 Tom Cruise and then give Brandon Lieb 0.5 Tom Cruises and then I could say "the last two Underwood recruits averaged 0.75 Cruises does Underwood even have a clue what he's doing?" Change the data, build the narrative, point to the "data" and say "see, this proves I'm right".

So where I'm headed with this post - looking at my own Tom Cruise rankings for football recruits the last five years and using that as a flashing warning sign - could easily be struck down by simply saying "Robert, you're coming up with the ratings, so you're artificially deflating this class in order to make your point". And there's no real way to argue against that except to say that I try to rate each player as fairly as I can. Sometimes, that's taking a 4-star QB like CJ Dixon and giving him 2 Cruises. Sometimes that's taking a 0-star unknown like Sydney Brown and giving him 3.75 Cruises (I bring that one up too much). Most of the time, when I do that, I get accused of building a narrative - "you're just a Lovie lover so you're inflating Brown's rating to make Lovie look good" or, well, just see the first comment last week when I gave Theodore Lockley 1.5 Cruises for the flipside.

I point those out simply to say that I give these ratings my best effort. I'm going to be wrong a fair bit (Dominic Thieman, bumped from 2 Cruises to 3.5 Cruises on Signing Day because he led St. Thomas Aquinas in receiving his senior season and I thought that deserved a big rating bump), but the whole goal behind this was to try to get more accurate ratings for Illini recruits. I got tired of Rivals giving every Illini recruit a 5.5 rating and 247 auto-assigning an 83 for everyone (does anyone even try to watch film or is that just reserved for players going to big-time schools?), so in 2013, I decided I'd do my own ratings, starting halfway through the 2014 recruiting class (meaning Nick Allegretti and Mikey Dudek missed getting Tom Cruise ratings by a few months).

Last year was the first year where every scholarship player on the roster had a rating. So it's the first time I began to play with the data. Someone had sent me a list of all Tom Cruise ratings in a spreadsheet, so I played around with it a little bit and started including the ratings when I did The 90 Illini and such. My feeling the first time I went through the data: I can see why Rivals and 247 simply play it safe with ratings. Hedging is BY FAR the easiest way to do this. There's no payoff to attempting to identify a Bobby Roundtree and giving him an appropriate rating. If he hits, there's no praise. If he misses, you were just boosting the grades to fluff the coach.

That's why no one else does this. It is absolutely lose-lose. It's just so much easier to take a third party rating and say "I don't agree with that - I think he's much better" but assign no value to how much better. Hedge, hedge some more, and then profit.

I went through with it (and will continue doing it) because it still bothers me that no one is willing to paint an accurate picture of Illini recruiting classes. The best way to do it would be to rank all Big Ten classes and see how we compare, but doing 300-some player evaluations every year would likely take me six months. So I'm left to evaluate the Illini recruits, compare them to other Illini recruiting classes, and see if we're boosting our overall talent level or lowering it.

And as the recruiting sites continue to rate classes without including transfers, I feel like school-centric recruiting rankings are even more important. You see all kinds of preseason rankings formulas which include 247's composite class rankings, and it still blows my mind that many of these numbers-centric guys continue to rely on rankings that don't include transfers at all. The rankings come up with a number averaging four recruiting classes, and they plug that number into the system, and that number for the Illini acts like Brandon Peters, Luke Ford, Josh Imatorbhebhe, Milo Eifler, and the other transfers don't exist.

Yeah I can feel that I'm on a tangent now but I need to keep going.

As you know, I swear by Bill Connelly's SP+ ratings. I quote it more than I quote any other data. The NERDstat revolution. I'm a shadow of my former self.

But it still blow my mind that he uses only "class ranking" for this data point. Here's what he says about the recruiting class ranking part of his SP+ formula:

2. Recent recruiting. After determining how much of last year's team is being brought back, the next step is to determine the caliber of the players who will be filling in the missing returning production. To do that, I use a weighted mix of recent recruiting rankings. They primarily pull from the past two recruiting classes, but I have begun to incorporate older classes as well, to a lesser degree. No matter what the "stars don't matter" crowd will tell you, recruiting rankings are extremely predictive, and these projections are more effective because of them.

I totally agree - recruiting rankings are extremely predictive. But with the explosion of the transfer portal - 1,105 players transferred last year - how can the data he enters into his formula come from recruiting class rankings which ignore transfers? The 2019 Illini class was ranked 53rd in the composite rankings. If you add Peters, Ford, Imatorbhebhe, Betiku, Sidney, Petitbon, and Chase Brown, that ranking is going to go up. I did that exercise last month where I re-ranked each player (dropping them to more accurate rankings based on them transferring "down" to Illinois) and then used the class calculator to see where the class would rank. The result for the 2019 class:

2019 original point total and ranking: 184.37, 53rd nationally
2019 point total and ranking once I added the seven transfers to the class (plus Witherspoon): 222.29, 27th nationally

If you missed that post and you're rolling your eyes at that, I urge you to go read it. I stand by my math. I only left Ford and Bhebhe as four-stars, dropped Peters to borderline 3-star/4-star, and dropped everyone else to three star recruits. And even with that, when running the numbers, the class jumps 26 spots in the class rankings. The only real hole there, as noted in the article: it doesn't include the transfers for all of the other schools either, which means the Illinois class ranking wouldn't jump to 27th, it would jump to 29th or 31st or whatever. Nobody brought in eight transfers like Illinois, but others did bring in several. That's the whole point here - every one of those transfers remains un-counted in the class rankings that are used for these predictive preseason rankings. For the 2020 season, it pretends like 15 of the 85 players on the Illinois roster don't exist.

I'm way, WAY off track here. I already ranted about that and here I am ranting again. But I just don't get why transfers continue to be ignored. Seems to me that better numbers could have seen last year's 6-win season coming.

I'll stop.

Back to Tom Cruises and the point of this post. A second person sent me a spreadsheet of Tom Cruises, and with apologies to the other guy who sent me the spreadsheet last year, A) he organized it by position and by recruiting class, and B) he attended the Michigan State game with me. So I'm rolling with this spreadsheet from now on.

At some point I might make it public, but for now, I'll just organize all the data here. What can we learn from my OBVIOUSLY BIASED rankings of the recruits over the last five seasons?

First, by class. Please note that this DOES include transfers, unlike, well, you know...

2016 (Cubit) class
Average Tom Cruise rating: 2.304
Top three recruits: Dele Harding 3.5 Tom Cruises, Dom Thieman 3.5, Tymir Oliver/Stanley Green/Zarrian Holcombe 3
Bottom three recruits: Brandon Jones 1 , Eddie Fish/Ayo Shogbonyo/Evan Jones/Griffin Palmer 1.5

2017 class
Average Tom Cruise rating: 2.730
Top three recruits: Owen Carney 4.25 Tom Cruises, Ricky Smalling 4, Lere Oladipo 4
Bottom three recruits: Five players rated 1.5: Ra'Von Bonner, Jamal Woods, Marc Mondesir, Isaiah Gay, Bennett Williams

2018 class
Average Tom Cruise rating: 2.563
Top three recruits: Calvin Avery 4.5 Tom Cruises, Verdis Brown 4.25, Sydney Brown 3.75
Bottom three recruits: Four players rated 1.5: Jacob Hollins, Julian Pearl, Carlos Sandy, Edwin Carter

2019 class
Average Tom Cruise rating: 2.820
Top three recruits: Marquez Beason 5 Tom Cruises, Isaiah Williams 5, Shammond Cooper 4
Bottom three recruits: Five recruits rated 1.5: Casey Washington, Dalevon Campbell, Evan Kirts, Josh Plohr, Tarique Barnes

2020 class
Average Tom Cruise rating: 2.650
Top three recruits: Reggie Love 4.25 Tom Cruises, Deuce Spann 4, TreSean Smith 4
Bottom three recruits: Chinedu Odeogu 0.5, Desmond Dan 1, Taz Nicholson/Anthony Shipton/Phifer Griffin 1.5

2021 class so far
Average Tom Cruise rating: 2.475
Top three recruits: Brody Wisecarver 3.5, Patrick Bryant 3.25, Snook Edwards/Trevor Moffitt 3
Bottom three recruits: Prince Green/Theodore Lockley 1.5, Samari Collier/Dylan Rosiek 2

Many things to cover here. Perhaps a list of things to remember.

1. Remember, this is me evaluating me.

Please keep that in mind as we go through this. I'm both judge and jury. I should really use third-party player evaluations for this, but, uh, I have some issues with said third-party player evaluations. This is simply one person - an Illinois fan - sitting down and evaluating every player through the same (unquestionably tinted) lens.

But since these numbers don't relate to anything (Tom Cruises? Really?), well, the only bias we have to worry about is whether I undersold the Cubit class (I don't think I did) or if I'm overselling Lovie's classes (I don't think I am besides maybe not caring enough about the fact that transfers are gone in 1-2 years and we don't have much high school talent built up behind them). If I wanted to oversell a class, 2018 would have been the class to do it, and I don't think I boosted those ratings at all. That was when I first started taking heat for it (very specifically when I rated Daniel Barker with 3 Cruises), but I feel pretty good about how history will tell the story of that spat.

2. Remember, 2021 needs to be his best class.

It will make up 30% of his future rosters. We were in a bowl last season and have momentum to sell. The Smith Performance Center now exists. We've been over this a lot, but it needs to be mentioned again: this is the class. Smallest class in the Big Ten the last two years (so few seniors graduating); likely the largest class in the Big Ten this year.

That, and the fact that the successful rebuilds I've studied (see the 2017 and 2018 IlliniBoard Football Previews) all had one common trait after the inevitable CLICK season: a boost in recruiting based on that click. There's almost always a dip after the first surge of a rebuilt program, and a recruiting hot-streak can help offset that dip.

How are we doing so far? Tom Cruise-wise, it's his worst class. Yes, there's only 10 recruits, and when you add transfers next spring, there might be as many as 30 new players in this class. But so far, when taking the average of all 10 recruits, it's the lowest average rating I've handed out.

Not Great, Bob. Still room to grow (which, yes, means there's still room for me to inflate the next 15 ratings and artificially boost this class), but for now, not only is it not his best class, by my ratings, so far, it's his worst.

3. Remember, the 2020 class was not in any way the "88th-best recruiting class".

We've been over this, but that's what the word "remember" is for. Remember, the composite rankings are not set up to accurately compare a class of 25 with a class of 13. Add eight walkons to those composite rankings - players who would never, ever see the field here, so eight warm bodies - and the class jumps 23 spots in the class rankings.

And there's this little thing where the class rankings don't include transfers. So it acts like Brian Hightower and TreSean Smith don't exist. AND, of those 13 high school players, seven of them (Love, Frenchie, Newton, Davis, Riggins, Spann, and Tyler) have offer lists on par with Iowa and Wisconsin recruits. I'll probably never not be upset with how the 2020 class is viewed.

4. Remember, this is still nowhere close to what we thought Lovie would do.

We can't really forget that. The day Lovie was hired, I really thought we were walking into a Mack Brown-at-UNC situation. His name would dominate Chicago (and Texas, and Florida) and we'd hop right to Zook-like classes again. Maybe even better. Somewhere, another John L. Smith will appear to accuse us of cheating.

It hasn't been that. At all. It's been an eval-heavy, we-like-our-guys, we-don't-need-in-state-players transfer-fest. The staff completely ignored the Beckman players (and most of the Cubit class) and started over like they were rebuilding a team after the death penalty. Recruiting was like Jerry Kill, not Mack Brown, and "we'll find our guys and build our kind of program" became the thing.

I feel like I need to make that point because most all of us started there. "We hired Lovie Smith? He's going to own recruiting with his NFL name." Nope. Herm Edwards has done more with his NFL name than Lovie. I mean, Jeff Brohm has done more with his XFL name than Lovie. It just hasn't been that kind of rebuild at all.

5. Remember, that's still maybe OK?

I've written about this several times recently, but great classes don't mean successful rebuilds and bad classes don't mean failed ones. Texas fans have been celebrating their great classes for 10 years and it hasn't gone anywhere. Nebraska had TWENTY four-stars on their roster last year and couldn't get to a bowl in year two of a hotshot coach. Florida State? 41 four-stars and five stars and they've gone 18-19 the last three seasons. Chip Kelly has had 20+ four-stars both seasons and went 7-17. Average recruit ranking at USC? 90.42 (AVERAGE recruit is a four-star, equal to Georgia and LSU). Average recruit at Utah? 84.44 (equal to Colorado and Vandy).

Yes, recruiting rankings generally hold. The playoff will probably be Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and Oklahoma simply because of recruiting. When you're trying to maintain your spot in college football, you have to recruit.

But when building a program, it doesn't require high-end recruiting. It certainly helps, but even high-end rebuilds with lots of four-stars will flop. You can get there just with a bunch of experience. That was basically the 2019 IlliniBoard football preview: 89 of the last 96 P5 coaches hired got to a bowl game. It's pretty easy to do. Play the kids, once you get them to 20+ starts in your system, they'll win enough to get you to a bowl. It's really hard to not win at least six games by your fourth year.

It's what you do after that. You brought the program up, you've built a culture, and your players know the expectations. As I wrote a few weeks ago, Lovie has improved the roster at (in my estimation), 7 of the 10 positions. Some positions (like cornerback) have gone from a 3.5 out of 10 to an 8.5. It's better than it was when Bill Cubit handed him the keys. And we just went to a bowl.

So the very next step is to level-up again. Improve this roster at 7 of the 10 positions. I think there's enough talent + experience to win 8+ games this season, but then those players graduate and it's time to rebuild the rebuild (something Zook nor Turner could do). The biggest step there? Turning these wins into better recruits.

So far, Tom Cruise-wise at least, it doesn't look like it's happening.


HiggsBoson on June 30, 2020 @ 07:05 PM

The only real conclusion I get from this is that it confirms my feeling that Lovie Smith has been a big disappointment so far. Nowhere near the recruiting we were hoping for, and a good many of his better recruits move on for various reasons. His W-L record is also disappointing, with his best season record equal to what got Zook fired. Lovie is a nice guy and a good representative of the university, and maybe that would be enough if he could manage to be bowl eligible every year, assuming that he can. I have serious doubts that we'll ever see much more than that with him. Your mileage may vary, of course.

Illiniiniowa on June 30, 2020 @ 08:52 PM

Zook wasn't fired for going 6-6. He lost that locker room and the arrow was pointed in the wrong direction. Not every 6-6 is equal. Lovie hasn't set the world on fire like we all wanted, but 2019 is a far better place than2011 was.

iluvrt on July 1, 2020 @ 11:55 AM

Zook was fired because Thomas was told to fire him. As soon as Thomas was hired, most knew he was a hired gun to get rid of the coaches. Thomas lost the locker room for the Zooker. He showed zero support for either the BB or FB programs his first year.

track on July 1, 2020 @ 01:15 PM

Yes, this is exactly how I remember it.

uofi08 on July 1, 2020 @ 08:16 AM

I agree. It's kind of like an acceptance that we never got what we actually wanted with Lovie, but maybe we can tread water and not completely suck.

To me the worst part is not taking advantage of any opportunity. Big-time newsworthy hire that somehow doesn't resonate with recruiting. 4 of the 7 teams in the B1G west are rebuilding at the same time but we can't keep up. We finally have a state-of-the-art top 20 facility and can't even see an uptick in recruiting. Finally make a bowl game and recruiting is stagnant at best.

Definitely not a rosy outlook, but I don't think it's inaccurate.

Efremwinters84 on June 30, 2020 @ 08:24 PM

Bravo Bob! Nicely done. My sentiments exactly. (As of this writing, I like the Fleck model better.)

mkillini on June 30, 2020 @ 09:34 PM

For all the angst about recruiting...Lovie has the best Illinois roster in at least a decade. His evaluations have been superb. The arrow continues to trend upward.

Robert on July 1, 2020 @ 05:33 PM

Since 2012, yes, but I wouldn't say "at least a decade". The 2010 roster was way better than this one. 2011 as well.

Dr. Chim Richalds on June 30, 2020 @ 10:53 PM

Just a note to say that commenters don't necessarily reflect broad reader views - a lot of times they just reflect the most vocal critics (I recognize that as someone who comments on here sometimes that there's some circularity there). I sometimes disagree with your opinions and takeaways, but there's no doubt that you do more to explain your opinions and reference and check in with your prior writing than 99% of journalists and bloggers, and I think most readers understand that. The idea that you're pushing an anti-Lovie (or anti-Underwood) agenda is laughable considering the past 4 years of your writing.

Also, if people hate your writing or question your integrity, they can just... not read your stuff.

IBFan on July 1, 2020 @ 12:35 AM

Lighten up Francis. Ok so questioning you on Tom Cruises or stating that in my unpaid for, unsolicited, less knowledgeable opinion you completely blew an eval should not be done. It was an opinion, there are no demerits, you won’t lose sleep....oh wait.

Of course, the Lord hates a quitter.

Isn’t it crazy those numbers for Fl St , et al? I just cant believe there isn’t better results.

I typed a whole book about your level of importance on this recruiting class and how it could be affecting your TC ratings but, wtf, I deleted it. YAAW

SactownIllini on July 1, 2020 @ 01:54 AM

Very cool, Robert. I think too if you get bored, it would be great to see an eval of your "hits" and "misses" thus far but you may not have enough data.

Also, would be great to see this for basketball too. And with basketball I think it would be cool to see a where are they now since there are so many transfers/decommits. Like Tilmon, Mark Smith, etc. Again, only if you're bored or inspired.

Chukwuwumba on July 1, 2020 @ 01:26 PM

Yes, agree to this. I wonder more broadly...are you better/worse at WR evaluations? Oline? Dline? Players probably need to finish careers for a proper reflection, but I wonder if you could improve/change eval process if there is a weakness for one group, or reinforce a strength.

uofi08 on July 1, 2020 @ 07:12 AM

Good explanations that make a lot of sense. One thing about you, that I don't think people give you enough credit for, is you are mostly able to somehow maintain your superfandom and informative posts without getting "hottake-y." It's very impressive. I think you usually come off as very balanced and as objective as possible.

The one thing I don't quite get is your obsession with transfers. I agree they are important, but how is anyone going to accurately rank a player that usually has minimal recent experience/film and less years of eligibility? I think last year's transfer class was much closer to catching lightning in a bottle than being the norm. You could count the number of catches and tackles at USC by Bhe Bhe and Betiku on one hand. They were as likely to flop as to flourish. Petitbon hadn't seen real game action since high school. Some transfers like Luke Ford, you know are going to be good, but the majority of transfers are leaving for the same reason you can't get a good evaluation on them - no playing time. They're bigger, stronger, and older than HS recruits but just as unpredictable.

Robert on July 1, 2020 @ 05:30 PM

To me, that's fairly simple, and it's the hack that Lovie is currently trying to exploit. No, Richie Petitbon wasn't the 62nd-best player in the entire 2016 class. Not even close. But he might have been the 717th-best player, and that's better than any of the linemen we had queued up to play right guard last season.

To put it in simple 1-to-10 terms. Petitbon was thought to be a 9 when he verballed to Alabama. He wasn't, and so he transferred out. But I don't look at those players as being 3's because they were busts. Your typical Alabama flameout is still at least a 6. And that's often better than anything we currently have on the roster.

uofi08 on July 1, 2020 @ 06:23 PM

I guess my issue with transfers is the grading is usually harder and you typically only get 1 or 2 good years out of them. We mentioned Petitbon, but what about someone like Christian Bell? He was at Alabama. Wisconsin probably had the same thinking as you, and that went nowhere. Imagine if Gabe Megginson had chosen Ohio State. If he was transferring, Illinois would’ve likely pounced at the opportunity to land him.

I think there’s 2 types of transfers. The Luke Ford, Keyshawn Vaughn, even Peters to an extent. Guys who have at least shown something, if not more and just need a new place. Then there’s the Bell, Betiku, Bhe bhe, Fason (blast from the past) guys. Players that were big recruits but never did anything at a big program. Those guys are big question marks, especially considering their fewer years of eligibility. Then you have the 2 guys this year from Cal and New Mexico that frankly make no sense to me, other than filling scholarships you can’t fill with anyone else.

Robert on July 2, 2020 @ 06:39 AM

I'm not sure I'm following you here. I gave Ford 4 Cruises, Eifler 3.5, and Peters 3 because I felt they'd be significant contributors. On the other end, I gave Christian Bell 2 Cruises, Desmond Dan 1, and Chinedu Udeogu 0.5. Just like high school recruits, I study everything I can learn about the player and then make a rating based on likely future contributions.

uofi08 on July 2, 2020 @ 07:37 AM

I think I'm kind of confusing myself now. I'm not taking anything away from your rankings. They're usually more accurate than anything you see on a recruiting site. I guess my point is that to win the transfer game, you need luck. Eifler, Peters, and Ford are easier evaluations. They actually had some playing time, something to go on. But many transfers are not like that. Bhe Bhe is a perfect example. I don't remember your ranking, probably around a 2.5-3, but he had basically nothing to go off of at USC. Also, he was the staff's 4th choice, after the OU, Richmond, and Miami kids all changed their minds. That's getting lucky, not some great evaluation by the staff. Had Christian Bell stayed at Alabama instead of transferring to Wisconsin, I'm guessing you (and myself and everyone else) would've thought pretty highly of landing a guy that just couldn't crack that lineup, but in reality, he's closer to a 2 star than a 4 star.

If the transfer route is the staff's plan, the first group makes the most sense to continue to land (Eifler, Peters, Ford). All had at least some experience, coupled with multiple years of eligibility. Going after Bhe Bhe, Betiku, etc is okay if you have the scholarships open and are fine with potential busts. Going the Dan and Udeogu route just doesn't make any sense.

Jacob on July 1, 2020 @ 11:58 AM

I appreciate the self critical article, but Snook Edwards is highlight of the class to me. He is a stud. His highlight reel and offer list is better than Nate Hobbs and Tony Adams. Tony Adams got a bonus from you because of the Mizzou competition. Snook Edwards had an Auburn offer and a national guy had a prediction for Auburn less than a month before he committed. He is pretty clearly the 2nd best DB recruit get of the Lovie era behind Beason. I don't know how you can have him behind Tony Adams and I really like Tony Adams and love him now. He along with McCourt are legends because of the Wisconsin game

I also think you have become a harder grader now. You graded 2017 vs 2016 and then graded every other class vs 2017 not vs the same standard. That is my feel at least

Robert on July 1, 2020 @ 05:23 PM

I think that's fair. When I went back through the rankings, 2015 was all over the place. It was the first full class I ranked, and I don't think I had the hang of it yet. Guys who would be getting 2 or 2.5 today were getting 3 or 3.5.

2016 felt much better. We all knew it wasn't the best class and, perhaps most importantly, we knew there weren't any players worthy of 4, 4.5, or 5. Honestly, had I not re-ranked Dom Thieman, I'd still feel great about nearly every ranking save Jake Hansen.

Do I grade much harder today? Maybe. But going through this exercise felt right. Talent-wise, the classes go 2019 (pushed over the top by transfers), then 2017, then 2020 and 2018 are basically the same when you add the transfers, then 2016. That's probably how I would have ranked the classes without this data in front of me (meaning what I've seen on the field and at practice matches what I saw on high school film). Of course, that's just me confirming my own opinions.

(Also, it looks like this was a double comment. I deleted the one above and responded to this one below.)

IlliNYC on July 7, 2020 @ 10:22 AM

Lovie is what he is as a recruiter now. I'd be very surprised if we see any big jumps in ratings at all during his tenure.

If he can get us to sustained respectability on and off the field, I'll be content.

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