2022 Three-Deep

Nov 30, 2021

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I should just permanently have the words "as in tradition around here" auto-filled at the top of every article. Because I developed a routine during the 2009 football season and I pretty much stick to it every year. The night before the game is the SOC. The season prediction doesn't happen until the Friday night before the season. Looks Like University of Illinois posts are written approximately 94 days after the player commits.

And after the season is over, I put together the on-the-record three-deep for next season. The bye-week depth charts? Just temporary glances. We're past Thanksgiving weekend now, which means the seniors have walked on Senior Day and now it's time to see what we have for next season by putting together a full three-deep. Which is... basically impossible.

Why? The transfer portal. We don't know who is headed out and who is headed in. Add that together with the one-year Covid waiver (where the team could have more than 85 players on scholarship for the 2021 season) and you'll likely have more roster chaos than we've seen in decades.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. It's just a function of the math. Remember, it wasn't just the "super seniors" who got an extra year - everyone got an extra year. A player who was a redshirt freshman in 2020 was once again a redshirt freshman in 2021. I thought that this would mean that the NCAA would extend the scholarship cap (85 players) for another 2-3 seasons, but they are not doing that. So just do the math there.

Every season 20-25 players come in and 20-25 players go out. It happens throughout the year, so it's not like every team has 23 seniors walk on senior day and then they bring in 23 freshmen to replace them. But that's the general math here. The tub is full, the faucet is on, and the drain is open. Tub stays full because the water going out matches the water going in.

Last year, the NCAA plugged the tub for a year. Which was fine because they made the tub bigger. Expanded the sides. Moved that little overflow drain thingy up higher. More water for everyone for one year. It was the fair thing to do since the pandemic cost so many players one of their college seasons.

But the faucet never turned off. There's still water (high school recruits) coming in. Which is fine if the water level stays up around 100. But the NCAA has said it needs to be back at 85 now. And with the faucet still running at the same rate as the now-open drain, uh, there's only two options here. Turn the faucet off for a bit (so that the drain will take us back down to 85) or leave the faucet on and scoop out a bunch of water with a pitcher and pour it down the sink.

No coach wants to turn the faucet off. Recruiting is the lifeblood of the program and you need new players coming in every single season. No coach is going to say "well, they gave everyone an extra year of eligibility, which means the 2018 class which would typically be departing right now is still in town so we'll just skip a year of high school recruiting". They're going to scoop the water out. Every single program is going to scoop the water out.

Now, the tub does have a few leaks, which helps here. It's not like every recruiting class remains completely intact. Eight players left Champaign at the end of June because they didn't see future openings on the two-deep. It's not like the tub was completely full and now has to go back down to 85.

But still, in the case of Illinois, I believe they plan on a maximum number of newcomers (which the NCAA has moved from 25 to 32 as long as you lost seven players to the transfer portal). And the way the math works out (90-some scholarship players, 27 players walked on senior day, need to get all the way down to 53 returnees so that 53 returnees plus 32 newcomers = 85), you're going to see 20-ish players leaving between now and next season. Some might declare for the NFL Draft. Some might transfer out. Some might just graduate (redshirt sophomores, remember, are currently seniors in the classroom because of the Covid year) and move on with their lives. So the departures will come in several forms.

You can rest assured that some water will be scooped out, though. From every tub at every program across the country. This is Black Monday, not Cyber Monday. Some teams only brought back 4-6 "bonus" players last year, so they don't have much scooping to do at the moment. It might be 8-10 players with remaining eligibility who are asked to depart.

But still, the NCAA is headed back to 85 and the effects of them plugging the drain for a year won't be over until the 2020 freshmen all exhaust their eligibility. There will be an extra year of recruits in the system (for every single program) until 2025. I should just finish this section with some big picture math.

11,050 FBS scholarships are available nationwide. 130 programs, 85 scholarships at each program. Every year, around 2,700 leave and 2,700 come in.

This year, none of the 2,700 had to leave. Many did leave, but they didn't have to. So the NCAA increased 11,050 to "unlimited". I'm guessing the number pushed to maybe 12,250 or so? If every school had been like Illinois and brought back every single Super Senior, the number would have pushed north of 13,000. But I'll guess the number to be around 12,250.

Now the cap is back to 11,050 for the 2022 season. 2,700 new players are knocking on the door trying to get in, just like they do every single year. So there's a surplus of around 1,250 players. Why? Because every player gets an additional year. Which means you're filling out your 85 from six recruiting classes, not five.

Since everyone gets hung up on "this is an Illinois thing because Illinois brought back the most Super Seniors", let's use another school. Minnesota brought back 10 Super Seniors. I'm not sure if they had a few spots available or if that took them to 95 scholarship players, but it doesn't really matter. Let's just say they had 95 scholarship players. Why 95? Because the 2016 redshirts and the 2017 true freshmen didn't have to leave after 2020. 10 of them stuck around for a bonus year.

So while the 2020 Minnesota roster was made up of players who redshirted in 2016 plus the 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020 classes, the 2021 Minnesota roster was made up of players who redshirted in 2016 plus the 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, AND 2021 recruiting classes. The NCAA looked at that and said "six classes? We'll lift the scholarship limit for a year."

Now it's the 2021 offseason and at the start of the 2022 season Minnesota will need to be back down to 85 scholarship players. And those 85 scholarship players will come from players who redshirted in 2017 plus the 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, AND 2022 recruiting classes. Wait, that's six classes again. Shouldn't the NCAA look at that and say "we'll lift the limit" again? They have said no. They gave teams plenty of warning. Which means that cuts are coming on so many rosters.

Some schools anticipated all of this and felt OK just acting like nothing changed. Michigan told exactly one Super Senior he could return. They just said "look, we're just gonna treat this like any other year - you might have earned an extra year from the NCAA, but you can't use it here". So while Illinois got up to 99 scholarship players in June, Michigan maybe got to 86. Those schools will continue to operate that way. Some fourth-year kid at Michigan is technically either a junior or a redshirt sophomore but they might just say "you're a senior, kid" and let him go. That's why it's not going to be some huge surplus of 2,700 players. Regular attrition takes care of a lot of things. I'm just pointing out that there's three more seasons with "super senior" decisions. It's not just 2021.

And look at the flipside of all of this: I'm almost certain the "players with eligibility who put their name in the portal but won't be able to find a spot" number will be close to 1,000. Which is something I hope that every player entering the transfer portal understands. Some Illinois player might enter the portal today expecting the typical "at least Georgia State and North Texas will make room for me", but Georgia State is over by 9 scholarships and North Texas is over by 11 (or whatever) so they're trying to make room just to bring in their high school class and dance the "we have to use our scholarships across six classes, not five" dance. Again, they're over by however many they're over because every player got an extra year, not because they brought back Super Seniors in 2021. Every player from the 2017 class through the 2020 class will get the opportunity to have a Super Senior season. And it will be up to the schools to say yes or no.

It will slowly work itself out, so this will be the most severe year. Attrition will happen and by 2024 many programs will just be trying to open a few spots. We've already seen that with the 2020 Illini class which was tiny to begin with and is now down to only six players. Some of this attrition is already happening.

But this first year of "unlimited back down to 85" will see many transfers hit with the harsh reality that every program is trying to sort their numbers and very few spots are available. I thought this would mean that the NCAA would lift the limit of 85 again and proposed a step-down method of maybe 92 in 2022 and then 88 in 2023 and back to 85 in 2024. But it doesn't look like anything like that will happen. Which means the NCAA is more or less forcing schools to sort their rosters this way. Additional eligibility? Yes. Additional spot available? No. The coaching staff will be choosing between them and that high school star and very often choosing the HS kid.

Oh, hey, look, I did the whole "write a whole post before getting to the actual post" thing. Let's get to the Illinois three-deep.

Just like the depth chart I put together back in October during the bye week, I'm using the word TRANSFER here ten times. I'm not going to put that word in bold on the first string, but I will put it in there on the second string. Just look to that as me saying this: "I think we will add 32 new players - 10 from the transfer portal and 22 from high school/juco. These are the 10 spots for the 10 transfers."

Right to (ha! "right to") a three-deep that Fitzee will absolutely hate. If you walked on Senior Day (like Daniel Barker, who still has one more year of eligibility), I'm leaving you off of this depth chart.

Also, I'm switching things up and going with 13 positions on defense. I'll explain afterwards.

QB | Sitkowski (JR) | TRANSFER | Leary (FR)
RB | C. Brown (JR) | McCray (SO) | Love (SO)
TE1 | Ford (SR) | Moore (SO) | Boyer (FR)
TE2 | Reiman (SO) | TRANSFER | O. Anderson (FR)
LT | Barlev (rs-FR) | TRANSFER | Kirts (SO)
LG | Pihlstrom (SR) | Okla (FR) | Wisecarver (rs-FR)
C | Kreutz (rs-FR) | Plohr (rs-FR) | Leonard (FR)
RG | Slaughter (JR) | TRANSFER | Gesky (rs-FR)
RT | Pearl (JR) | Okpala (rs-SO) | Whitenack (FR)
WR | Williams (rs-SO) | Sandy (JR) | Miller (FR)
WR | C. Washington (JR) | Spann (SO) | TRANSFER
WR | Navarro (SR) | Bryant (SO) | Pugh (FR)

ROLB | Coleman (SO) | Johnson (SO) | Badie (FR)
RDL | Randolph (SO) | B. Barnes (JR) | TRANSFER
NT | Avery (SR) | V. Brown (JR) | McConnell (rs-FR)
LDL| Newton (SO) | Pate (SR) | T. Jones (FR)
LOLB | Bryant (SO) | Holmes (rs-JR) | TRANSFER
LLB | Tolson (SR) | Meed (SO) | Villanueva (rs-FR)
ILB1 | T. Barnes (JR) | Darkangelo (JR) | Hood (FR)
ILB2 | Hart (JR) | Rosiek (rs-FR) | Odeluga (rs-FR)
CB | Witherspoon (JR) | Strain (rs-FR) | Snyder (rs-FR)
CB | Nicholson (SO) | TRANSFER | Edwards (rs-FR)
STAR | Martin (SR) | TRANSFER | Curry (rs-FR)
S | S. Brown (SR) | TRANSFER | Green (rs-FR)
S | Joseph (SR) | J. Washington (rs-FR) | T. Griffin (FR)
Kicker | Griffin (JR) | McManus (FR)
Punter | Robertson (rs-FR) | unknown
Longsnapper | Hall (rs-SO) | L. Hansen (rs-FR)
Punt Return | Navarro (SR) | Sandy (JR)
KO Return | Navarro (SR) | Sandy (JR)

Let's start with why I listed the defense like that. And then I'll do my typical list of notes.

Against Nebraska we had 2 down linemen, 2 stand-up outside linebackers, 2 inside linebackers, and 5 defensive backs. Against Northwestern, we mostly had 5 linemen (3 down, 2 stand-up ends) and then some mix of two linebackers and four defensive backs or one linebacker and five defensive backs. And many times, during the season, when were were in that 5-1-5 look, it was Khalan Tolson moving up from linebacker to a stand-up EDGE guy with maybe even Owen Carney moving in to one of the down lineman spots.

So I felt like I needed three spots listed for each of those looks:

  1. Five defensive linemen (ROLB-RDL-NT-LDL-LOLB) for all the times we're in a typical five man front.
  2. An extra linebacker (which I'm calling LLB) for when Tolson or someone else is up on the line.
  3. STAR (Quan Martin's spot) for those five DB looks (which was so much of this season).

Looking at the snap counts on PFF for Khalan Tolson, he had 236 snaps as a box linebacker and 165 snaps as a "defensive lineman" in that 5-1-5 look (there's only one "linebacker" there - Tarique Barnes in the middle). That means that the position I'm calling "Left Linebacker", which I had on my April depth chart but removed from my August depth chart, is back.

There were a lot of different packages but three main looks this season. Sometimes it's five prototypical defensive linemen (this past season, Carney-Newton-Perry-Randolph-Gay), sometimes it's a linebacker moving up with Carney being more of a typical DE and one of the three interior linemen coming off, and quite often it's five defensive backs. Therefore, ergo, vis a vis the latest chart... 13 spots.

OK, to the notes:

  • I probably don't have to mention quarterback. There will likely be a transfer coming in to provide competition (at the very least).
  • Offensive line is the biggest question mark on the entire team (but we knew that). Four seniors depart. With Josh Kreutz having played in three games this season (while keeping his redshirt), I think that's a sign they're prepping for him to take over at center for Doug Kramer. And Julian Pearl will hang on to his starting tackle spot (perhaps moving to left tackle?). So there's three more spots. Alex Pihlstrom started five games this season, so give him the edge for one of them. Jordyn Slaughter returns after missing the 2021 season with a broken ankle, so he might get one of the spots. And for now I'm putting Zach Barlev as the other tackle (another freshman who played but still redshirted). Transfers will enter the mix here, though. I put TRANSFER on the OL depth chart three times.
  • Three-headed monster at RB if everyone is back (which is a phrase I have to say at every position because of the transfer portal).
  • WR returns everyone with significant catches. At tight end, the big question is Daniel Barker who chose to walk on senior day. Kendrick Green walked on Senior Day last year, a sign that he was done with college football. So that seems to be the assumption with Barker until we hear otherwise.
  • I'm keeping Deuce Spann at WR. But I'm still holding onto my dream that he moves back to QB at some point.
  • Defensive line is the other spot where I think we'll see a fair number of transfers coming in. I show two spots there but it really could be three. The main reason I went with two: one transfer (Alec Bryant from Virginia Tech who transferred-in back in August) is already here. And for now, I'm putting him in the starting lineup in Owen Carney's spot.
  • It's still so weird to write "Seth Coleman (SO)" followed by "DJ Johnson (SO)". One guy from the 2019 class. One guy from the 2021 class. Both technically sophomores next season.
  • Linebacker, to me, seems to be the deepest position on the 2022 team. It's mostly just two spots (which I split into three for the "packages" I described earlier), and there are three guys (Calvin Hart, returning from injury, plus Khalan Tolson and Tarique Barnes who started the entire second half of the season) ready to fill those spots. Depth comes from Isaac Darkangelo (now on scholarship and clearly the #3 linebacker this last month) and other guys like Ryan Meed (also recently put on scholarship), Dylan Rosiek (who played in three games here at the end of the season while preserving his redshirt), and Kenenna Odeluga (moved to fullback for a bit but now back at linebacker).
  • I'd say that of all the positions, "starting cornerback opposite Devon Witherspoon" is the one that's most up in the air. Tony Adams graduates, and I'm just not sure who takes the spot. Taz Nicholson started two games this year (while Adams was working through something - possibly an injury?), but Nicholson only played in two of the final six games. So it's really up in the air. Is this a spot for a transfer to come in and start?
  • Safety is the strongest position on the team next season if everyone returns. That's a surprise because if you go back into the preview I bet you can find me saying "safety is the position with the biggest question marks". But Ryan Walters really found something with his three safety look. Kerby Joseph became the go-to free safety, Sydney Brown slid into that SS role perfectly, and the key to unlocking Quan Martin seemed to be putting him at Star (he was always caught between corner and safety). So if all three are back, perhaps the best safety unit in the Big Ten?

One final thing. I finalized my redshirt chart and tweeted it yesterday. If you didn't see that, here it is:

NOW I think I'm done. 5-7 season complete. Momentum provided. Transfer portal activated.

Keep on keepin' on, Bielema era.


thumpasaurus on November 30, 2021 @ 03:48 PM

This defense should be pretty close to last year’s. Carney and Adams are losses as is Hansen, but CJ Hart is the best looking illini defensive player I’ve seen in many years. If he’s anything like the player he was against Nebraska, he should be a force of nature.

ktcesw on November 30, 2021 @ 05:19 PM

Just curious, do you see S. Cooper staying at IL?

BelieveInIllinois on November 30, 2021 @ 05:45 PM

My prediction of guys currently not on team that will start: 3 o-line next year, the qb, 1 receiver, 1 d-tackle , 1 outside linebacker and a cornerback . That is 8 guys.

Efremwinters84 on November 30, 2021 @ 06:35 PM

ONE WISH FOR THE 2022 SEASON: Please give us one 4-star QB with legitimate 4-star skills (and grant him good health for all of our 13, 14 or 15 games).

RochIllini on November 30, 2021 @ 06:51 PM

Do you see Brian Hightower transferring? He saved a red-shirt.

CAIllini on December 1, 2021 @ 10:45 AM

Thanks, insightful! For those of us who may not follow quite as closely and don’t know every current starters’ name and year by heart, is there a way to show the departures in a "column 0” on the far left to understand what we’re replacing (at least the departing starters). Just a thought….cheers!

BamaIllini on December 1, 2021 @ 12:01 PM

I think Robert did a nice job of highlighting some players by omission that he does not expect back next year.

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