Happy Portal Day!
For reasons that escape me, this is not a national holiday.
But the opening of the Transfer Portal is no different than the beginning of the NBA/NFL league year and the beginning of MLB’s hot stove league. The game of telephone is beginning and the rumor and innuendo will break the speed of light in the coming days.
The Fighting Illini just finished 8-4 in year two of the Bret Bielema era. The progress on the field is an obvious sell to potential transfers. There will be several major holes to fill due to NFL and eligibility-related roster attrition. So what major stories in the portal will be impactful to/for Illini fans?
How will Illinois handle the quarterback position?
This seems like the big question. And I’d expect a resolution in the next week or so. Tommy DeVito had a highly productive season in Barry Lunney’s first campaign as offensive coordinator. At press time, DeVito is out of eligibility. The Illinois staff is working behind the scenes to get DeVito another year, but that’s far from a sure thing. So the Illini will proceed as if the waiver request will be denied.
(Cue Illini fandom explaining how the NCAA never sides with O&B.)
Let’s address the FamILLy elephant in the room.
NC State star quarterback Devin Leary has entered the transfer portal. Leary’s ties to the Illinois roster are well known. Illinois assistant George McDonald was on staff at NC State when Leary had his best seasons. NC State coach Dave Doeren is a former assistant and close friend of Bret Bielema. Oh, and his younger brother Donovan is a true freshman on the Illinois roster.
This would be a massive get for Bielema and Co. Arguably, it would be the biggest signing for the Illini since Martez Wilson and Arrelious Benn in 2007. Leary is a gamechanger. If healthy, he’s got real NFL upside and the numbers to back it up. In 2021, Leary threw for 35 touchdowns and only 5 picks.
So clearly, he’ll be a sought-after commodity in the quarterback market. Notre Dame has been mentioned as an early favorite. But if Bielema and crew want to really put their stamp on Illinois being here to stay as a factor in the conference, signing Devin Leary would put an exclamation point on the Illini’s arrival at the big boy table.
But if Leary goes elsewhere, there are lots of experienced quarterbacks with varying levels of success who are already available. From the highly unlikely (Hudson Card, DJ Uiagalelei) to the possible Tommy DeVito 2.0 level of solid (Brett Gabbert, Brennan Armstrong, Hank Bachmeier) to the guy who had one great game that happened to be against Illinois and is now leaving Madison (Graham Mertz); Illinois will have no shortage of options.
However, the Illini may have to move quickly to pounce on a quarterback. It’s a high stakes game of musical chairs, and I doubt Barry Lunney and Bret Bielema want to be left standing at the end of the song.
Also, can we just have Move by Ludacris be the new song for every actual game of musical chairs?
How will the rest of the Big Ten West respond to Iowa?
Iowa jumped the market by gaining an early commitment from presumed Illini target and former Michigan starting quarterback Cade McNamara. With McNamara’s addition comes a flood of rumors about Iowa changing its offense. Modernizing, if you will.
(I prefer simply acknowledging the forward pass.)
Alabama transfer Traeshon Holden and Michigan tight end Erick All Jr. are rumored to be high on McNamara and the Hawkeyes’ list.
Wisconsin QB Graham Mertz is entering his name in the portal. Northwestern is coming off two terrible seasons, and could use some ready-made Big Ten starters on both sides of the ball. Luke Fickell and Matt Rhule are bringing in new systems and, likely, lots of new guys to their respective programs. I’d be on the lookout for Cincinnati decommits and former players to join Fickell in Madison.
Speaking of coaching changes in the Big Ten West.
Will Purdue need a new head coach?
Well, that escalated quickly. Scott Satterfield announced he was leaving Louisville to replace Luke Fickell in Cincinnati the same way your ex-girlfriend broke up with you for the guy who slid into her DMs and flew her out to Cabo.
So let the Jeff Brohm rumors commence. Brohm was a star quarterback for the Cardinals back in the day, so the pull may be strong to coach his alma mater.
If this happens, the Purdue job opening up could mean a mass exodus of players and the sudden availability of playing time all over the field. Who would Purdue hire? Would they go with another offensive guru? Would they go for a program builder? Will they try to find a different ex-NFL player who refers to himself in the third person to steer the ship of a program that wears black and gold?
All kidding aside, if Purdue does wind up needing a coaching change, it will be yet another massive shift in a division that has seen its fair share of upheaval this season.
Will Illinois use the portal to stage a preemptive strike against early defensive departures?
There is a lot of young talent in the Illinois defensive backfield. But it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the overall ceiling of the position group drops with the seemingly imminent departure of Devon Witherspoon. The all-conference first-team corner has been a revelation this season. He’s arguably been the best cornerback in the nation this season, and the NFL will definitely take notice on day one or day two of the 2023 draft.
So that leaves a huge hole at corner. While Taz Nicholson has demonstrated readiness to continue his ascent, Illinois needs a veteran corner to play on the opposite side of the field while young studs like Tyson Rooks and Tyler Strain continue to develop.
Johnny Newton led the Big Ten in quarterback pressures. He can also expect to hear his name called sooner rather than later in the NFL draft. While Illinois has solid depth on the edges, a ready interior defensive lineman with power five experience would be an excellent fit alongside Terah Edwards. Also, if Keith Randolph elects to leave, perhaps the Illini need to double dip in the large end of the talent pool
How will the portal improve the flaws in the Illini offense?
There will likely be a Chase Brown-sized hole in the Illini backfield next season. The Illini great can come back for another season. And nobody would complain if he did. But I think he’s given so much to the program that I’d be first in line to celebrate his future success at the next level whenever he chooses to leave.
So where does this leave the backfield?
Reggie Love and Josh McCray both have shown the ability to make an impact in the running game. But neither has been a consistent feature back. Aidan Laughery has game-breaking potential, but he was unable to stay healthy. Freshman Jordan Anderson is massive and has shown excellent hands, so perhaps he’s poised for a breakout in 2023. Class of 2023 early enrollee Kaden Feagin has a ton of upside, but also has been dealing with injuries throughout his high school season. So while there are some potential answers, could Illinois look to add more power in the portal?
The #Illini will likely have a Chase Brown-sized hole in their backfield next season. With two years of eligibility left, this native Hoosier would be an excellent bridge to the Coach Patterson's hungry young lions. https://t.co/k44WMR9wx3— Pleas Andrew Honeywood (@PronouncedPlez) December 3, 2022
Carson Steele is an A+ name with tremendous productivity. But the competition for his services will be steep. He seems like the kind of impact guy who could have a Kenneth Walker-like season in the Big Ten. With as much potential depth as the Illini have at running back for next season, perhaps health and development are all the program needs.
What about tight ends? Illinois is losing Luke Ford and Michael Marchese at the end of the season. Tip Reiman and Griffin Moore will have three hungry freshmen chasing them for snaps next season with Navyian Cargill, Henry Boyer, and Owen Anderson all bringing different styles and skill sets.
This is still a largely unproven room. So could Illinois turn to the portal for tight end help? South Carolina transfer Austin Stogner is a capable receiver who just entered the portal. Kyle Morlock already has plenty of offers, but the Division II All-American from Shorter put up monstrous receiving numbers that would make any offensive coordinator do cartwheels.
And what about the offensive line? The line was solid this season, but Julian Pearl is likely to move on. Alex Palczewski and Alex Pihlstrom are out of eligibility. And while the Illini do have a large stable of young, talented linemen, perhaps an experienced veteran to pair with Isaiah Adams and Zy Crisler would help the Illini offense evolve in year two under Coach Lunney.
Is Josh Kreutz ready to step in and start at center? Will Zachary Barlev or Joey Okla be ready to contribute? Where is possible future first-round pick (yeah, I said it) Magnus Moeller on his trajectory? While these questions will be answered in the spring, Bart Miller’s group could use some surefire experience and productivity in the near-term.