2024 Three Deep - January Update

2024 Three Deep - January Update

I like to make depth charts (or three-deeps) around… seven times per year? Maybe I should start here with a list of all the updates I generally make throughout the year.

I have this tradition where I'll do a depth chart for next year's team during the bye week in the fall. So let's put that one on the list first:

  1. Bye Week depth chart (let's start peeking at next season)
  2. After the season (that's the one that gets the word TRANSFER plastered everywhere)
  3. In January when the semester starts (we know most of the transfers, both in and out)
  4. Before spring ball
  5. After spring ball
  6. Before fall camp
  7. After fall camp

This is the one after the "TRANSFER" depth chart, so let's start there. I assembled that one on November 29th; let's see how I did. I suggested a transfer (and not a returning player) at six spots and, to be honest, I would have included eight or nine spots had we known about the Tip Reiman departure (I thought he'd come back for a fifth year), the Sed McConnell transfer to Boston College, and the Taz Nicholson transfer to Ole Miss.

But I had it at six spots (two starters, four backups), and those were…

  • Left Tackle
  • Right Tackle
  • Defensive Line
  • Nose Tackle
  • Cornerback
  • Star (hybrid safety/corner)

Since then we added one junior college transfer and six players out of the transfer portal. And they fill most of the positions, with the defensive backfield being the one spot where I'm still concerned (especially after the Taz transfer). I'll just run through it all real quick.

The number one need for me was left tackle, and that's where we added the player I'd rank #1 on my list of portal arrivals: 1st Team All Mountain West left tackle JC Davis from New Mexico. Yes, after the Avery Jones experience last year (transfer who backed out the weekend before move-in and instead transferred to Auburn), when JC Davis was introduced at the basketball game last Thursday, on campus, enrolled, and ready to go, I had my own mini celebration in my seat. Write him down in permanent marker.

For the right tackle transfer, we added two more linemen (Kevin Wigenton from Michigan State and Melvin Priestly from Howard. EDIT: Grambling State). I'm not sure either one is a right tackle, but they provide the OL depth I was worried about. Again, my hope (request?) was for a starting left tackle and a backup right tackle. Mission accomplished, I think.

As mentioned above, had I known that Tip Reiman was leaving, I would have included TRANSFER there as well, and we landed his replacement in Murray State tight end Cole Rusk. Rusk had offers from schools like Ole Miss and Texas A&M, so I'm pleased with the Tip Reiman replacement as well.

On defense, I asked for a starter to replace Johnny Newton, a backup at the other DL spot, and a backup for TeRah Edwards (who I'm assuming will take over the starting NT duties from Denzel Daxon). We initially added three DL transfers, but now it's only two because after his official visit, Yale transfer Clay Patterson announced he was decommitting (sometimes, visits confirm it's not a fit). He ended up choosing UNLV this past weekend (after announcing a much better offer list when he initially entered the portal) so… not sure what happened there. Maybe he just wanted to be in Vegas?

That meant that we added two defensive linemen. The Johnny replacement (as the supposed starter) will be Anthony Johnson from Youngstown State. And the player battling TeRah Edwards for the nose tackle spot will be Auburn transfer Enyce Sledge. All 320 lbs of him.

In the secondary, we only added one transfer: junior college cornerback Chase Canada (who picked Illinois on December 15th). I originally had "TRANSFER" as the backup at one of the corner spots, but once Taz Nicholson left, I think a starting spot is now there for someone to grab. This means the only "TRANSFER" spot from my depth chart not filled during this window was the backup safety/corner I was hoping for (requesting?). The hunt continues.

OK, so now we can do the depth chart. Let's do this one as a three-deep (where I list three different players at every position). And instead of doing the 12 positions on offense/12 positions on defense thing (to show the players who might play when we have multiple tight ends in the game or five defensive backs), I'll just list 11 and 11. Here we go.

QB | Altmyer (JR) | Leary (rs-SO) | Petty (FR)
RB | Feagin (SO) | McCray (JR) | Laughery (SO)
TE | Rusk (JR) | Moore (SR) | Arkin (JR) -OR- Boyer (rs-SO)
LT | Davis (SR) | Henderson (SO) | Dennis (FR)
LG | Wigenton (JR) | Whitenack (JR) | Leonard (rs-SO)
C | Jo. Kreutz (JR) | Okla (rs-SO) | Leys (JR)
RG | Gesky (JR) | Priestly (JR) | McMillen (rs-FR)
RT | Crisler (SR) | Schuster (SO) | Møller (rs-SO)
WR-slot | Beatty (JR) | Sanders (JR) | Ty. Griffin (FR)
WR-x | Hollins (rs-SO) | Elzy (SO) | Capka-Jones (JR)
WR-z | P. Bryant (SR) | Wilcher (SO) | Battle (JR-walkon)

ROLB | Coleman (SR) | D. Brown (JR) | Badie (rs-SO)
RDL | Johnson (SR) | Warren (rs-FR) | Tuerk (FR)
NT | Edwards (SR) | Sledge (SO) | D. Davis (JR)
LDL | Jacas (JR) | Bray (SO) | McCullom (FR)
LOLB | A. Bryant (JR) | Holmes (SR) | Muragin (rs-FR)
ILB1 | Rosiek (JR) | Ja. Kreutz (rs-SO) | Hood (rs-SO)
ILB2 | Odeluga (JR) | Hayden (rs-FR) | Meed (SR-walkon)
CB | Tobe (SO) | Canada (SO) | Mc-Cantos (SO)
CB | X. Scott (JR) | Strain (JR) | Clarke (SO)
SS | Bailey (rs-SO) | Hill (JR) | Karriem (SO)
FS | M. Scott (JR) | Resetich (SO) | TJ Griffin (rs-SO)

Kicker | Olano (SO) | some walkon kicker I guess?
Punter | Robertson (JR) | Duley (rs-FR)
Longsnapper | L. Hansen (JR) | McLaughlin (JR)
Punt Return | Beatty (JR) | Wilcher (SO)
KO Return | Wilcher (SO) | Laughery (rs-SO)

And now for the notes:

+ My very first thought is how quick the senior day ceremony will be. I'm sure there will be more transfer portal movement in the spring, but as of right now, just going by scholarship players, from the three classes the majority of the lettermen will come from, there are 8 seniors, 25 juniors, and 31 sophomores. Those who read my football preview in August just instantly thought about the "Mind The Gap" section. More on that in a bit.

Eight seniors generally means "this is not the year - next year is the year." That's not as true in the transfer portal era, but it still holds. I know that's probably scary for many of you to hear, but let me offer some good news to that bad news. Hold this roster together and, in 2025, it's probably a top-10 Returning Production team? And might I remind you of the top four teams in Returning Production going into this past season: Kansas, Missouri, Florida State, and Michigan. All four had massive leaps forward this past season.

+ My second thought is how this offseason has been a "Lovie players" eraser. Last season, 23 Lovie players remained. This spring, 9 Lovie players remain. The common theme among players leaving Illinois through the portal last month: most were Lovie recruits. Reggie Love transferred to Purdue to join Cory Patterson, Sed McConnell transferred to Boston College, Taz Nicholson transferred to Ole Miss, and Zach Barlev transferred to Old Dominion. Only one Bielema recruit entered the portal (Shawn Miller, who transferred to New Mexico). 23 Lovie players last season; 10 graduate, 4 transfer, and we're down to 9.

That's fairly remarkable given that the 2021 recruiting class was a Lovie class (they signed on December 16, 2020 and Bielema was hired on December 19, 2020). The 2024 recruits, once fully assembled on campus, will only be the third Bielema recruiting class. And there are only nine inherited players remaining.

Somewhere I assembled a list of Turner recruits, Beckman recruits, and Lovie recruits still around for year three (in a newsletter? in the preview?). I need to dig that out and run the numbers for year four because I'm guessing "nine" is wildly different from the other years. Yes, the portal is a big part of this, but the elimination of the "only 25 players can count towards each class" rule is equally as important.

To really hammer this home, let's just do the math. Following the typical college football roster assembly rules, 2024 teams will be made up of players from the 2024, 2023, 2022, and 2021 recruiting classes plus redshirts from the 2020 class. And with Covid making 2020 not count, true freshmen who played in 2020 are still seniors (eligibility-wise) this coming fall. And players who redshirted in 2019 are also still eligible this fall.

So how many 2020 and 2021 (still a Lovie class) recruits remain?

2020: Hugh Robertson
2021: Pat Bryant, Josh Gesky, Josh Kreutz, Dylan Rosiek, Tyler Strain

Two inherited recruiting classes, all players still technically eligible in 2024 regardless of redshirt status, SIX remain.

So, uh, yeah - we're in The Gap. Bielema leaned heavily into Lovie players in the 2017, 2018, & 2019 classes (surprisingly so). He then looked through the 2020 & 2021 classes he inherited and settled on only six players (from two entire classes!) he felt he could use. With a shortfall like that, he could've bit the bullet and started the true freshmen in his 2022 and 2023 recruiting classes (like Lovie did in 2017 and 2018), hoping for a 2024 payoff, but he chose not to. He leaned into the experienced talent in the 2017, 2018, and 2019 classes instead, pushing everyone's Covid eligibility to the max. Smart choice, obviously, because he's 12-15 in the Big Ten through three seasons, not 4-23.

But going about it that way is always going to leave a gap. Especially when the coach inherits his first class because he got the job after signing day (thanks, Covid). This means that when we look at the next three years, 2025 and 2026 appear more stable than 2024. At least from this view.

+ Please remember that this is a January 3-deep so I'm looking to see where we're stacked and where we're thin. Position questions will sort themselves out in spring ball and fall camp. Among the questions you might have had while looking over the three-deep:

  • "Crisler at tackle and Gesky at guard?" That's how I have it for now, but it could be flipped. No idea. I mean, we could even see Whitenack moved out to tackle with Crisler and Gesky battling for the same spot. Or maybe they see Wigenton as a tackle. So much to learn on the OL this spring.
  • "Jacas moving inside to take over for Johnny?" That's how I have it for now, but that's mostly because we're so thin and young on the defensive line. Jacas started one game there this past fall (and nine games on the outside) so we know they're willing to move him. We certainly have a surplus at OLB and a shortfall inside (Keith, Johnny, Keith's backup, and Johnny's backup are all gone), so someone's going to move.
  • "Do we really not have another kicker?" Caleb Griffin graduated and Fabrizio Pinton transferred (since he was going to be looking up at David Olano the rest of his career). And another walkon kicker (Will McManus) transferred to Richmond last year because he was looking up at all three of those guys. So suddenly it's Olano and… nobody else? I guess there's probably a walkon coming in. I should be more on top of that.
  • "You sure those are going to be the starters and backups at corner and safety?" I'm not. Which is why I think that will be our spring portal focus. Sort through everyone (and I mean everyone) during spring ball and then go fill the holes during the spring portal window.

I'm sure you have other questions but… those are the ones I can anticipate.

+ Position that scares me the most when assembling this? Wide receiver. Pat Bryant might get 125 targets because everyone else is unproven. I think Elzy and Wilcher will still be a year away, so it's "Bryant + hope Beatty is fully ready + hope the flashes we saw from Hollins lead to a big year three for him." We could really use an out-of-nowhere emergence like juco Mario Sanders, last year's juco Alex Capka-Jones, or maybe true freshman Carlos Orr. (True freshman Tysean Griffin is coming off ACL surgery in December so I'm not expecting him to be Big Ten ready as a true freshman.)

Position that makes me feel pretty good when assembling this? Easily DE/OLB. Seth Coleman's goal needs to be to lead the Big Ten in sacks, Alec Bryant is the most underrated player on the entire roster, we added the supposed #1 juco pass rusher in Daniel Brown, and Ezekiel Holmes gets a (hopefully healthy) 7th season. And if Jacas stays out there (I don't think he will), he's another potential All Big Ten guy.

Biggest takeaway from the whole exercise? Nine Lovie players left. And only eight total scholarship seniors.

Senior Day ceremony will begin at 10:54 for an 11:00 am kickoff.