23 & Me

May 16, 2023

To everything, churn, churn, churn
There is a season, churn, churn, churn

Today's tale tracks with all of the college football offseason rule changes over the last 15 years. SEC coaches cutting the bottom 20% of their roster and bringing in recruiting classes of 37 resulted in an NCAA-instituted cap of 25 players per class. Players leaving in droves via the portal resulted in the elimination of that cap of 25 per class. Roster churn too hot, roster churn too cold, roster churn jusssst right.

The result, in 2023: Bret Bielema took over the program in December of 2020 after the 2021 recruits were signed. It's now roughly 30 months later, he's only had the 2022 and 2023 recruiting classes to reshape the roster, and as it stands today, there are only 23 Lovie Smith recruits remaining.

You don't know how remarkable that is, but I'm about to show you how remarkable that is.

First, some general numbers. I took 2+ hours researching this last night so pay attention. Going through the current roster, there are 23 Lovie Smith recruits on the '23 roster. There are also two players who walked on while Lovie was the head coach that Bret Bielema has now put on scholarship (Tip Reiman and Bryce Barnes), but in terms of players who signed with Lovie, there are only 23. If you want to know the names, here you go (in alphabetical order):

Zach Barlev, Tarique Barnes, Pat Bryant, Seth Coleman, Nick Fedanzo, Josh Gesky, Caleb Griffin, Ezekiel Holmes, Evan Kirts, Josh Kreutz, Reggie Love, Sed McConnell, Griffin Moore, Johnny Newton, Taz Nicholson, Julian Pearl, Keith Randolph, Hugh Robertson, Dylan Rosiek, Jordyn Slaughter, Tyler Strain, Casey Washington, Isaiah Williams

The other 60-ish scholarship players? Bret Bielema recruits (well, plus two walkons moved to scholarship). In the old days, the absolute maximum number that Bret Bielema could have added at this point is 50 players. But he's at 60 (with more transfers to be added soon).

Why was it 50? Because of the Houston Nutt Rule. We've been over this before, but that rule was put in place after Nutt took the Ole Miss job, cut a bunch of players, and brought in a recruiting class of 37. Everyone was oversigning at the time as well, offering scholarships to players on signing day and then telling 4-5 of them in the spring "uh, we actually don't have a spot for you." LSU telling Houston Bates that they no longer had a scholarship for him and offering him a grayshirt is the reason Houston Bates ended up at Illinois.

Anyway, the NCAA put in the 28/25 rule. You could extend up to 28 LOI's (to account for some players who would not academically qualify), but by enrollment time, all classes were capped at 25. You could backdate -- only sign 21 one class, so then you sign 29 the following class by adding four early enrollees and "backdating" them to the previous class -- but over two classes, you couldn't add more than 50. High school recruits, transfers - didn't matter. 50 is the max.

Which is why it's fairly remarkable that there are only 23 Lovie Smith recruits remaining. For the sake of this math, let's assume that Bret Bielema fills the remaining scholarships with transfers who are visiting this month. He'll then go into the 2023 season, his third, with 23 Lovie Smith players and 62 Bret Bielema players. In the past, the absolute maximum - and that's if everything goes right and you have 25 full rides to give in each if your first two classes - would have been 50.

Maybe the best way to frame all of this is to look back on Year Three for other Illini coaches. I'll list out the numbers, and then I'll go through the NCAA rule changes throughout that time.

Ron Zook Year Three: 35 Ron Turner players on the roster
Tim Beckman Year Three: 38 Ron Zook players on the roster
Lovie Smith Year Three: 30 Beckman/Cubit players on the roster
Bret Bielema Year Three: 23 Lovie Smith players on the roster

Now let's (very briefly) walk through why that is.

2007 - Ron Zook has 35 Ron Turner players on the roster in his third season.

+ In 2009, the NCAA implements the Houston Nutt Rule, capping classes at 25, meaning some of the freedom that Zook had to turn over the roster is now gone.

2014 - Tim Beckman has 38 Ron Zook players on the roster for his third season.

+ Just after that (2014-2015), grad transfers become a real thing. And blueshirts (count a player towards the next class instead of a current class as long as they never take an official visit) become quite popular. So coaches started using these additional tools to help reshape their rosters. They were both losing and gaining players through grad transfers, so rosters started to turn over a little more. (They were still under a cap of 25 per class, though.)

2018, Lovie Smith has 30 Tim Beckman/Bill Cubit players on the roster for his third season.

+ During that season (October of 2018, to be exact) is when the Transfer Portal makes its debut. Two years after that, the sit-out requirement was dropped and players could be immediately eligible after a transfer. And in 2022, the cap of 25 per class was lifted. That's the reason you see Deion Sanders sending 71 players to the portal. With no cap in place anymore, he can bring in an entirely new team if he wants.

2023, Bret Bielema has 23 Lovie Smith players on the roster for his third season.

Another thing to keep in mind: both Lovie Smith and Bret Bielema inherited already-signed recruiting classes. Lovie got the job in March, months after the 2016 class signed, and Bielema got the job December 19th, three days after the 2021 recruiting class signed. So neither had the chance that Zook or Beckman had to evaluate the verbal commits before signing day. Both inherited classes that had already signed.

I'm getting a bit off track so let me center us back in. My point here is not an analysis of Illinois coaches. I'm not saying "wow, great job Bret, only 23 Lovie guys left." If the last two drafts have said anything, it's the Lovie left talent in the room. It would probably be a good thing if there were more than 23 players (and if they were of the same calibre as Johnny Newton and Keith Randolph).

I'm saying that this is college football in 2023. Roster turnover - the thing at the center of nearly every successful rebuild - happens at a much quicker pace these days. And there's no better example of that then the 23 players listed above.

When Bret Bielema took over at Illinois, he was handed a class of 14 players who had signed three days prior. He was able to add Josh McCray, DJ Johnson, Kionte Curry, and Kenenna Odeluga to that class, but his first full recruiting class couldn't be signed until a year later. That would normally point to a long process where the roster is gradually turned over to players who fit his schemes.

Instead, it's 30 months later and there are only 23 Lovie Smith recruits remaining - four from the 2018 class, eight from the 2019 class, four from the 2020 class, and seven from the 2021 class. It's been a 30-month process of evaluating which players fit the schemes and which players do not. Add two walkon-to-scholarship guys and 60 recruits/transfers and presto: the 2023 Fighting Illini. 23 in '23.

There's a lot of consternation about the portal and immediate transfer eligibility, but I hope you can see how it allows for quicker football rebuilds. I mean, Bielema doesn't even use the portal as much as Lovie does - we haven't seen a year like 2019 with Wole Betiku, Luke Ford, Josh Imatorbhebhe, Richie Petitbon, Brandon Peters, and Chase Brown under Bielema yet. Besides quarterback (Tommy DeVito and Luke Altmyer), we haven't really seen him go after the big splash transfers like Bhebhe, Ford, and Betiku. He's concentrated more on "fits what we do" transfers like TeRah Edwards, Prather Hudson, and Jack Badovinac. So this rebuild hasn't even been the PORTAL MADNESS that's going on at other schools.

I could spend several paragraphs on that topic but let's just wrap this up. 35, then 38, then 30, then 23. And the 30 and the 23 were accomplished without the benefit of an initial recruiting class. College football rebuilds have changed significantly, and this current staff has done a great job of reshaping this roster in only 30 months.

The number of guys in that locker room this fall who date back to the Lovie Smith era? 23.

Well, and me.


IlliniA.J. on May 16, 2023 @ 03:52 PM

Its only 23, but it could have been even less without COVID, right? None of the 2018 kids would still be around and all the 2019 kids would have had their 4 years (thus not being promised a 5th). COVID is actually prolonging the Lovie roster.

Robert on May 16, 2023 @ 08:17 PM

True. Holmes, Slaughter, Pearl, and Griffin are all here in 2023 because 2020 didn't count.

Although, had Slaughter and Pearl not been here for 2023, other Lovie OL recruits from 2019 and 2020 might still be on the roster (maybe even on the field).

Forbes2South on May 16, 2023 @ 05:02 PM

As you noted, the college world has changed in the last 16 years. A better comparison of the 23 would be to rosters of other 3rd year coaches not to historical comparisons. Guarantee Dean Sanders’ number will be lower in year thr… er…one.

Robert on May 16, 2023 @ 08:20 PM

I'm good, but I'm not "look at another team's roster and determine which players are walk-ons and which players are on scholarship" good.

Actually, the hardest part of that exercise would be looking at transition recruiting classes and trying to determine who was recruited by the new coach and who was recruited by the old coach.

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