Mind The Gap - Reprint

Mind The Gap - Reprint

I've probably referenced "in the intro to the 2023 football preview..." at least 15 times since August. The section I called Mind The Gap. I just did it again while writing an answer to a mailbag question.

I then realized that many of you don't know what I'm referencing. The previews are sent directly to the subscribers at our top two tiers so everyone who doesn't subscribe at that level doesn't know what I'm talking about. So I figured I'd re-publish that section here. And unlock it for everyone.

This was written the second-to-last week of August last year. So you're going to read some things and say "well, is that really the case?" It might have been back in August. I was previewing last season and pointing to the burgeoning "gap" between the Lovie recruits and the Bielema recruits.

If you read this already back in August, just skip on past it. The next mailbag post will be up in a few hours. If you want to read it again (or read it for the first time), here you go. What did I see as the major concern for the 2023 season? And why has everything I've written since been based on that same line of thinking? Here you go:

Mind The Gap

Every coach who rebuilds a program deals with the same issue: the gap between the players he inherits and the players he recruits. His first recruiting class won’t be ready for a while (too young and inexperienced). Many of the players he inherits aren’t a fit for the schemes he wants to run. So, generally, a new coach will put players into four categories:

  1. Players who fully fit what we want to do.
  2. Players who probably aren’t the best fit but they’ll have to do until my first recruiting class is up and running. 
  3. Players who just aren’t going to play in these systems.
  4. Recruits brought in specifically to run these systems. 

The delicate balance of a rebuild: keeping enough players in Category Two so that you can manage the transition from players in Category One graduating and moving on to the players in Category Four being ready to contribute. You’re going to find a lot of players you can use, and you’re going to play those guys immediately, but they’re also going to graduate immediately so you’d better be ready to fill that gap.

Tim Beckman attacked that gap with junior college players. Some of Beckman’s top recruits were jucos (Jihad Ward, Geronimo Allison, etc.). But the thing about jucos is that they’re taking the place of a freshman you could be developing. Yes, they’re much more likely to help stabilize the program, but when they leave, you probably need to bring in yet another juco because they took the place of a freshman who could have been developed.

Lovie Smith threw freshmen at the gap. He basically ignored Category Two above. He found a few players who fully fit what he wanted to do and then tossed his first recruiting class at the entire gap. Of the 24 freshmen in his first recruiting class, 21 (plus juco Del’Shawn Phillips) got on the field their first season. And for good measure, walk-on Michael Marchese also played immediately, so 22 true freshmen found the field. It led to this crazy stat which I’m pulling from the top of my head but I’m 87% certain I have the numbers right:

Former Illini record for starts by freshmen (from a team in the 1970s): 34
Starts by freshmen in 2017: 87

The point: we had the youngest team in college football in both 2017 and 2018 because Lovie Smith threw his first two recruiting classes at the gap. He started over, basically. 

Bret Bielema now has the transfer portal available. But I’m not making a “the transfer portal saved us” point because the transfer portal didn’t really save us. This has not been a Colorado rebuild where the coach says, “everyone out — I’m going to go build an entire team out of the portal.” Nor has it been a Texas A&M scenario (they were bad last year so they dumped 31 players through the portal; turned the computer off and turned it back on, basically).

If you look around the country, our transfer portal numbers are very low. I’ll just make a quick list so you can see some of the craziness. Here’s a list of schools plus players out/players in. And please note that it’s never going to be one for one. Players will leave through the portal and the school will fill those scholarships with a combination of freshmen and transfers. 

My quickly assembled list:

Colorado (the extreme example): 57 out / 49 in
Arizona State: 31 out / 28 in
Nebraska: 25 out / 14 in
Purdue: 22 out / 11 in
Wisconsin: 18 out / 13 in
Illinois: 11 out / 7 in
Oregon State: 9 out / 7 in

From my quick glance through the numbers, Oregon State has the least portal movement. But we’re pretty close. The fewest players leaving I can find (out of Power Five programs) is Oregon State with 9 players out the door. Illinois is close with 11. And the fewest transfers coming in I can find is Wake Forest with 3; Illinois has 7. 

Maryland, Michigan State, and Purdue saw 22 players leave through the portal. Indiana 21. Missouri 23. Nebraska, with their new coaching staff, had 25 players leave. 

Illinois had 11. 

Ole Miss has 25 players coming in through the portal. Louisville 27. California 17. Nebraska 14, Kansas 13. 

Illinois has 7. 

So, no, the answer for Bret Bielema is not, “he’ll just fill the gap through the portal.” Yes, the removal of the “all recruiting classes are capped at 25 players” rule has led to the ability to overhaul a roster quicker, but this staff hasn’t used the portal like other rebuilding staffs have used the portal. This has not been a “quick fix” kind of scenario.

Which brings me to my point. The decisions Bret Bielema has made in his 32 months on the job have all pointed towards the long-term health of the program. Listen to any press conference and he’ll likely mention that “we’re a developmental program.” In fact, he talks about development all the time. Just the other day he mentioned how he wished he had SIU transfer Clayton Bush for several years (instead of just the one year) because of how high of a ceiling he sees for Bush. Bielema views his players on a continuum and wants as many years as he can get out of each player.

I mean, look at his decision when the Covid waiver was announced, and rosters weren’t limited to 85 players in 2021. Illinois brought back the most “super seniors” and had the biggest scholarship roster in the country. In Bielema’s second year, he fought for (and gained) waivers for Alex Palczewski and Michael Marchese to receive a sixth year of eligibility. Other coaches inheriting a rebuild were ushering as many players out the door as possible in order to remake the roster as quickly as possible. Bielema chose a set of players he wanted to build his program around and has attempted to max out their eligibility.

I’ve mentioned this before, but Illinois is one of the few programs that immediately started listing players by their Covid eligibility. If a player like Keith Randolph is a fifth-year redshirt senior but he could technically use his Covid year to play a sixth season in 2024, he’s listed as a junior (while almost every other Big Ten program lists a player like that as a fifth-year senior on their roster). I mean, even our basketball roster is listed with everyone’s actual eligibility while the football roster is listed by Covid eligibility.

The reason for that, at least in my estimation, is found in the words “developmental program.” The longer they have players in the system, the better they feel about those players eventually contributing. The sixth year for a guy like Kendall Smith seems to be more important to them than a one-year, four-star transfer. It’s not that they won’t take a one-year transfer — Clayton Bush and Nicario Harper have been added to (hopefully) immediately bolster our depleted secondary — but this is not a Louisville scenario where Jeff Brohm is attempting to build the entire team out of transfers. 

(Reminds me of the old Steven Wright joke: If they build the black box to be indestructible in an airplane crash, why not just build the whole plane out of that?)

What are the risks of the Jeff Brohm method? The same as the Tim Beckman juco risks. You have to then keep doing the same thing year after year. Sure, you might be adding some two-year and three-year transfers, but you’re not developing any fifth-year seniors in your program.

What are the risks of the Bret Bielema method? You’re not really throwing anything at the gap. You picked the 35-or-so players from your inherited roster that you wanted to build around and they’ve led you to a 5-7 season followed by an 8-5 season. But that number is down to around 20 now, and your first recruiting class is just now entering their true sophomore/redshirt freshman season. Other programs see that and say, “give me 18 transfers to fill in all of those gaps.” Bret Bielema has seen that and said, “I’ll add seven transfers to fill in the critical gaps but then turn to the players in development to fill in everywhere else.”

That’s my very first thought when I look at the 2023 football season. We lost a lot, but a decent amount of talent returns. We had four draft picks last year and I can see four or five draft picks next spring. The development of these developable players by this developmental staff has been incredible so far. They chose their core players, extended their eligibility clocks as far as possible, developed them, and were ranked in year two.

That core — the players Bielema’s staff chose to build around — is now down to around 20 players. Which means that it’s now all about managing that gap. Any staff choosing to redshirt a lot of their freshman and develop them for the long haul (instead of throwing jucos or transfers at the problem) is going to deal with a gap. It’s just the reality of rebuilding a football program. It’s not bad or good, right or wrong, it’s just … there’s always a gap. It exists from the moment you take over until every player on the roster is your recruit. 

Maybe the best way to talk about all of this is to show you my current depth chart (on the next page).. Lovie Smith recruits are in bold. Transfers (both juco transfers and portal transfers) are in italics:

QB | Altmyer (SO) | Paddock (SR)
RB | Love (JR) ~OR~ McCray (rs-SO)
TE | Reiman (JR) | Moore (JR)
LT | Pearl (SR) | Henderson (FR)
LG | Adams (SR) | Gesky (rs-SO)
C | Jo. Kreutz (rs-SO) | Barlev (rs-SO)
RG | Slaughter (SR) ~OR~ Gesky (rs-SO)
RT | Crisler (JR) | Henderson (FR)
WR-slot | Williams (JR) | Beatty (SO)
WR-x | Washington (SR) | Elzy (FR)
WR-z | P. Bryant (JR) | S. Miller (rs-FR)

ROLB | Coleman (JR) | A. Bryant (SO)
RDL | Randolph (JR) | McConnell (rs-SO)
NT | Edwards (JR) ~OR~ Daxon (SR)
LDL | Newton (JR) | B. Barnes (SR)
LOLB | Jacas (SO) | A. Bryant (rs-SO)
ILB1 | T. Barnes (SR) | Ja. Kreutz (rs-FR)
ILB2 | Rosiek (rs-SO) ~OR~ Odeluga (rs-SO)
CB | Nicholson (JR) | Tobe (FR)
CB | X. Scott (rs-SO) | Rooks (rs-FR)
SS | Bush (SR) | Hill (SO)
FS | M. Scott (SO) | Harper (SR)

Of the 22 starters I’m listing there…

  • 14 Lovie Smith recruits
  • 5 transfers
  • 3 HS recruits

This is not, in any way, a “the only good players are Lovie recruits” point. Just the opposite. There’s no better way to make my “Bielema has chosen the developmental path” point than to show you that it’s year three and he’s only starting three of his guys. I just went back and looked at my preseason depth charts for 2018 (Lovie’s third season) and 2014 (Beckman’s third season). Here’s a comparison of the starters for the last three Year Threes:

  • Tim Beckman, 2014: 12 of his own recruits (5 transfer/juco, 7 HS), 10 Ron Zook recruits
  • Lovie Smith, 2018: 15 of his own recruits (2 transfer/juco, 13 HS), 7 Beckman/Cubit recruits
  • Bret Bielema, 2023: 8 of his own recruits (5 transfer/juco, 3 HS), 14 Lovie Smith recruits

One more statistic and then I promise to (try to) tie all of this together. 

I wrote an article in May once the transfer portal closed talking about how the portal has allowed Bret Bielema to turn over his roster faster than his predecessors. I called it “23 And Me” because, at the time, there were 23 Lovie Smith players remaining. And that counted a few players who walked on while Lovie was the coach and were put on scholarship by Bielema, so the “recruit” numbers are even less. 

Here’s the numbers from that article:

  • Tim Beckman, 2014: 38 Ron Zook players on the roster
  • Lovie Smith, 2018: 30 Tim Beckman/Bill Cubit players on the roster
  • Bret Bielema, 2023: 23 Lovie Smith players on the roster

It’s the comparison of these last two lists that has been bouncing around in my head all summer. It’s why I started thinking about The Gap (no, not a pair of chinos — the roster gap). The two lists seem to go in opposite directions. 

I’ll just combine these last two to make my point:

  • Tim Beckman, 2014: 38 Ron Zook players still on the roster, he started 10 of them (26.3%)
  • Lovie Smith, 2018: 30 Tim Beckman/Bill Cubit players on the roster, he started 7 of them (23.3%)
  • Bret Bielema, 2023: 23 Lovie Smith players on the roster, he’ll start 14 of them (60.9%)

So, Bielema has turned over the roster way faster than his predecessors … and still hasn’t played his recruits. Three of them will likely start on Saturday — Gabe Jacas, Xavier Scott, and Miles Scott — and Miles Scott is a walk-on. (Matt Bailey would also likely be starting, but he’s out with an injury. And Bailey starting probably bumps Miles Scott out of the starting lineup.)

This made me want to go back and rewrite “23 And Me” because I missed something. The point of that article was that the portal has allowed Bielema to turn over his roster much faster than Lovie, Beckman, or Zook. And the implication was that this might be why he’s turned things around quicker. But when you compare that to the depth chart, that’s not really what’s happening. 

Yes, he has 62 of his own recruits on his third roster, and that far exceeds what any of the other coaches had. But on Saturday, he’ll only start eight of his own recruits (5 transfers, 3 HS recruits). Beckman started 12 at this point and Lovie started 15. So, this really isn’t an overhaul at all. This is development. 

Picture this like one long conveyor belt. At the end of the belt, players fall off into the graduation container. The first thing Bielema did when he arrived was extend the belt. If Covid allowed for extra eligibility, he wanted those players to travel as far as they could go before they fell into the graduation bin.

Then picture Bielema’s assistants as, I don’t know, the factory workers aligned along the belt. Their job, as each player travels along the conveyor belt, is to polish that player so that when they reach the end of the belt and fall into the graduation bin, they’re as well-developed as a player can be. In fact, NFL scouts have started to walk through and pick players off the belt before they even reach the bin at the end. This is a good problem to have. 

There have also been players removed from the belt. These are the players who transferred out. They jumped off the belt before they reached the end. And when they jump off, they’re either replaced in that spot by a transfer or they’re replaced by a high school recruit who gets on at the beginning. Only 85 players can be on the assembly line at one time, so it’s one for one. When a player falls into the graduation bin, he’s either replaced in the middle with a transfer or he’s replaced at the start with a high school recruit. When a player hops off early, same thing.

Bret Bielema has, so far, added 62 players to the belt in his first 32 months on the job. He’s filled 62 of the 85 slots himself. But of those 62, only eight of them are in the starting lineup so far. And of those eight, five were added further down the line (transfers). Only three were added at the beginning of the conveyor belt. 

One more thing to add to this: starters. Let’s say that when a player moves into the starting lineup, he earns some kind of badge. Let’s call it a star. The players are all moving down the line towards graduation (while hoping the NFL representatives show up and pull them off the line early) and when they move into the starting lineup a big star appears above their head. 

So now head up to the second level of the factory. Go all the way down to the end so you can look back and see the entire assembly line in one view. The start of the conveyor belt is all the way on your right, graduation bin is at the end on the left. What do you see?

You see two groupings of players with a fairly large gap in between. There are 20-some players on the left side and the majority of them have a star above their head. And there are 60-some players on the right, with the assistants working on them furiously, but all appear to be early in production. Only three of those guys on the right have a star above their head. You can tell that some transfers — some seniors, some juniors, some sophomores — have been slotted into that gap. But it’s nothing like what you saw when you visited the Louisville factory. They had transfers coming out of their ears, filling every empty space.

That’s the view of a developmental program in its third year. Eleven players are on the Senior Bowl watch list, which means the polish put on by the assistants over the last two years has been flawless. The NFL grabbed four guys last year and will grab at least that many this year. When you are looking from the second level of the factory, you can’t help but notice how shiny all of the players near the end appear. And when you see the work that the assistants are putting in on those 60 guys to the right, you ask yourself, “wow, might we have even more shiny players once they all reach the end down there?”

The only thing that appears curious to you is that gap. Most every coach who is revamping a roster in this era of the portal has thrown tons of transfers at that gap. If there are holes between the players inherited and the players brought in, nearly every staff out there has leaned heavy into the transfer portal to fill the “in the meantime, while those freshmen are redshirting and learning the system” space. The Illinois staff has not. The Illinois staff has, in my estimation, said, “we’re going to lean on the guys we inherited even more than most because it will take several years of development for these young guys to be ready.” They’re not learning on the job. They’re still getting their education.

That’s fascinating to me. In this era of the portal, very few players (comparatively) have departed. There were a lot of departures in the first 18 months — it happens with every new coaching staff everywhere — but since then, we’ve seen a very heavy lean on select inherited players while the large recruiting classes enter the factory.

Personally, if I was the head coach, I’d find the lure of the portal to be irresistible. Right now, there’s a clear gap between The Team That Is and The Team That Will Be, and I’d want to fill that gap with a bunch of fourth-year juniors from another program. But this staff appears to back up what they say: development, development, development. Once the inherited receiving corps of Isaiah Williams, Pat Bryant, and Casey Washington have finished their careers, the staff won’t turn to the portal for the next set of Illini wideouts. At that point, they’ll have developed Shawn Miller, Malik Elzy, and Hank Beatty to the point where they’re ready to take over.

I think you get the point by now so I can probably move on to talking about that offense. I just didn’t want to start this preview without telling you the thing I’ve been thinking all summer. Bret Bielema has turned over the roster incredibly quickly … and played significantly fewer newcomers at the same time. 

There’s a core group of inherited players who have been asked to carry the program while the kids are being developed. They’ve done a fantastic job so far. Besides quarterback, transfers from the portal have mostly been added to supplement, not take over. And all the while, the kids are being developed and developed and developed.

The transition starts to happen this year and really gets going next year. The staff believes it can be done without many transfers. It’s an interesting zig when everyone else is zagging through the portal, but I like the approach. If the player development continues at the same level as before, there will be a very firm foundation in place for the next decade.

What’s that thing Bret Bielema always tweets? “We’re just getting started”?

Let’s hope so.