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Illinois is using the transfer portal as its new competitive edge

Lovie’s looking for a new way to win.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Ohio State Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois has found a new competitive edge and it’s going all in. With the transfer portal becoming a part of the strategy of college football, Lovie Smith and the Fighting Illini are seemingly placing all their eggs into the basket labeled “High-Profile Transfers” and then they’re hoping that investing like this will bring returns that can become a modern method to compete in the Big Ten.

The transfer portal was defined and implemented just last season. On October 15, 2018, for the first time ever, players were allowed to enter their name into the transfer portal where they could now talk with other schools openly without restriction. This is a big change to the procedure. Players were restricted by their own teams from talks until at least the end of the season and sometimes beyond, not to mention that they were almost always banned from talking to any potential opponents of their current team.

This now brings college football into a new age, one that is just barely cresting the horizon. No team has had the chance to fully entice new players until this year and Illinois is already placing much of its time and effort into tapping this new resource. Of the teams in the B1G, only Illinois and Rutgers have as many as six incoming transfers. Miami leads the nation with nine.

Most of you know them but, just in case, here’s the list of players that have committed to transferring to Illinois this offseason (with their original recruiting ranking):

  • QB Brandon Peters from Michigan (4-star)
  • WR Trevon Sidney from USC (4-star)
  • WR Josh Imatorbhebhe from USC (4-star)
  • OG Richie Petitbon from Alabama (4-star)
  • OLB Oluwole Betiku Jr. from USC (5-star)
  • TE Luke Ford from Georgia – Has to sit out one year (4-star)

(Yes, that’s three players coming from USC. TCR’s own Michael Berns examined that relationship early last week.)

And it’s also worth mentioning players like wide receivers Jeff Thomas from Miami and A.D. Miller from Oklahoma, and QB Matt Fink from USC had expressed interest in Illinois before deciding to stay put. Another sign that Illinois was heavily chasing transfers.

The word on the internet is that this is the new free agency for college football. It’s kinda true, what with the teams now able to pitch players like it’s an additional, second round of recruiting. On the other hand, there’s still the restriction of sitting out for a year (in certain cases) and entering the portal can come with some risks — submitting one’s name raises a very clear and resonating signal that one is not entirely happy in their situation. Coaches are allowed to take that as a vote of no confidence and adjust playing time accordingly.

Smith, however, is using this new aspect as a way to get a competitive edge. It is known that Illinois cannot keep pace with the likes of Michigan and Ohio State in regards to recruiting. The Fighting Illini have to find another way to get quality talent. So why not use the portal? The Illini have attacked this first year to fills holes in the roster and to make this coming season into one that just might (maybe) approach a competitive level.

By doing so, it acknowledges in a backwards, round-a-bout way that Illinois has had a hard time drawing recruits during the transition into the Smith Era. And it could be the case that Illinois will continue to pull players in like this.

However, the question remains: will it work? First, let’s acknowledge that this is a two-part question. The two elements of that question: The Right Now, and The Later.

Here’s The Right Now: The Illinois offensive attack is undoubtedly getting a boost for 2019 and 2020. Two talented receivers arrive to bolster a position group that was previously one of Illinois’ biggest weaknesses going into the season. Brandon Peters is here for two years to either start every game as signal-caller or as depth for any quarterback that may win the QB competition. The O-Line gets help from a former Alabama player and the defense adds a former 5-star that will immediately upgrade how Illinois counters the ground game and attacks with the pass rush. The state of the Right Now at Illinois is much better now that it has brought in transfers.

But what happens after this? What happens when we get to The Later? It’s a big question and I’ll just come out and remind you of the simple, simple truth: We don’t know. Anytime I end up talking about The Future it feels weird. I could fall down tomorrow and have to live with a rug burn, or maybe my mutant gene might finally wake up and give me my powers I’ve been waiting for. But it’s pretty much pointless to talk about The Future in the context of sports. Any team could be on top of the world, looking like the next dynasty, and then it all comes tumbling down in as little as two years and you’re sitting at the bottom. Happens all the time. But the inverse can happen too. The worst team can become the best team. We don’t know.

Basically, the transfer game that Illinois is playing comes down to whether it can keep up with the construction of the roster. Planning out the future depth chart is an extremely vital aspect of college football strategy. It takes years to come to full fruition. The coaches that are good at roster construction are thinking and planning three to four years into the future. It takes at least four years for a freshly hired head coach to get their first recruit to be a senior, so when recruiting lapses even just one year it can make a big difference down the road.

Transfers can fill those gaps. The Illini have holes at WR and LB (and maybe a little uncertainty at QB) going into 2019, well here’s some players who address those problems right now. However, it doesn’t fix the long-term future and there’s only two things that can fix that: regular recruiting of freshmen and grooming them into upperclassmen, or more transfers next year.

In the right situation, transfers are fine. Take Isaiah Williams for example. He’s a quarterback with a bright future here at Illinois but he’s still a freshman and it may be in everyone’s best interest for him to redshirt. Peters can come in now and play until that time when Williams is really ready.

But if a team continually uses a roster spot on a transfer, it can compound the problem in the future. It can cause the classes to become unbalanced. For example, the defensive side of the roster could have eight of the eleven players as seniors, with two of those eight coming into the program as transfers to help a certain position group. That’s good for this year but the next year is a scramble to fill all those positions with adequate talent (for those schools that aren’t Ohio States, that is). Do you establish the long-term plan and let the underclassmen get experience on a good team? Or do you bring in the transfer to make the current team better?

It all depends on the right situation. And it’s one that Illinois will need to have extreme vigilance. (And I do mean that literally — 2020 will be a year with lots of seniors.) With extremely good management, this can work for Smith. It’s a gamble that he is hoping will prove that he’s got the program headed in the right direction.