An old football adage states, the further you line up away from the ball, the easier it is to come in and have an impact as a freshman. Wide receivers can learn a few plays and let their natural ability take over (Ricky Smalling), and safeties, although under immense pressure to protect against the big play, can let the play unfold in front of them (Bennett Williams). So what can we tell by yesterdays transfer departures by Henry McGrew, Frank Sumpter, and Harvey Clayton? The Beckman/Cubit exodus is going to continue, and, it’s really not that big a deal.
Well, that is really not a big deal to the Fighting Illini football future that we’re all hoping and praying for.
Sure, it’s shocking to continue to add names to the transfer list, but unless you ignorantly expect Illinois to compete for a New Year's Day bowl game in 2018-2019, this is just another step towards building the team Lovie wants to stake his claim with in 2019. Because of scholarship limits, those recently free’d up by the latest departures won’t be filled this signing day, but the opportunity created is most important for the future. And sure, veteran depth is paramount in the Big Ten, but again - fretting over MAC level depth isn’t really worth the effort.
Without argument, everyone should agree that Lovie Smith’s first class of 2017 was a monster leap more talented than anything seen in Champaign since the Ron Zook early days. There is a laundry list of talented freshman you should be excited about. But, suddenly staring up at all those pieces and wondering if they’ll ever get a shot are the classes that preceded 2017. And, as student athletes that were accepted into the University of Illinois, they have the cognitive reasoning to see the writing on the wall. If they want the opportunity to start, it’s going to be elsewhere, and I imagine the eventual landing spots will reflect the level change.
Throughout 2017 I preached (and tried my best to adhere to) patience, and however difficult it’s going to be, we’ll once again be trying to keep patient with the 2018 season. A more critical eye will be warranted in the third year of tutelage, but really how many guys will have more than a year with Lovie in this system? Certainly none of the offense, which will be completely revamped.
I don’t want to commoditize student athletes that picked Illinois for football and have recently left the program, but in this harsh athletic business, they’re expendable to the imagined end-goal. The current class of 2018 has three defensive back signees, and I imagine that number grows to at least five in the coming weeks. The depth charts now show a clear path to joining Bennett Williams in the secondary, or repeat the promising early cornerback results from Tony Adams and Nate Hobbs.
With this opportunity is the cost, and that cost is the jettisoned athletes that keep appearing on our twitter feeds.