The NCAA Football Transfer Portal opens on Monday.
It’s going to be nuts.
Multiple big names have already announced their intentions to enter the portal and continue their academic and athletic careers elsewhere.
The Illini have already lost Fabrizio Pinton and Reggie Love to the portal.
So where will the Illini look to add during #PortalSzn? Where could they be vulnerable to significant losses? Let’s examine the roster.
Pinton leaving does hurt the Illini’s depth. His K/P versatility was certainly beneficial to roster construction.
But the arrival of true freshman scholarship players Declan Duley and David Olano eliminates the need for more scholarship additions. Another walk-on like Pinton wouldn’t be out of the question, but this is not likely to be a scholarship addition in this room.
Also, Hugh Robertson still has multiple years of eligibility.
John Paddock is out of eligibility. But he sure brought some intensity, passion, fight, and big plays to Illinois in his one season in Champaign. The fourth-generation Illini will not be forgotten any time soon. It would be great to see him stick around the program similar to Art Sitkowski.
But Paddock was a walk-on. His departure doesn’t impact the scholarship count.
I would be more concerned about one of the scholarship quarterbacks leaving due to being blocked on the depth chart. With Trey Petty arriving this winter, the quarterback room will include four competitive scholarship players: Luke Altmyer, Donovan Leary, Petty, and Cal Swanson. It would be great to develop that kind of depth year-over-year. But quarterbacks enter the portal at significant rates since there are so few starting jobs.
Illinois should be prepared to lose a quarterback in the portal.
Reggie Love has already announced his intention to enter the portal. Love was slated to be a consistent contributor to a potentially prolific Illini backfield. His absence still leaves a returning contingent of Kaden Feagin, Jordan Anderson, Aidan Laughery, and Josh McCray…provided there is no more portal attrition, of course.
Incoming freshman Ca’lil Valentine will bring a burst of talent and athleticism that elevates the ceiling for this group. So going out and getting another back seems like a less-than-optimal move considering all of the remaining holes on the roster.
This room is full of mystery. If Isaiah Williams returns, this group’s potential is astronomical. If he doesn’t, a plethora of untapped talent is still waiting to see the field.
And then there is the curious case of Pat Bryant. Bryant has demonstrated an ability to be the physical, long, “go get it” guy for the Illini. He will likely be on NFL radars. While he’s no certainty to be drafted in 2024, the NFL measurables exist. Could he move on to find an offense that makes better use of his skill set? He is a genuine vertical threat, so plenty of teams could be intrigued by his potential.
Additionally, Illinois has Shawn Miller, Malik Elzy, Eian Pugh, Kenari Wilcher, Collin Dixon, Hank Beatty, and the emerging Ashton Hollins. All of these were legitimate recruiting wins for the Illini. All of those players, save Hollins, had Power Five offers. With such a deep group, perhaps there could be further attrition.
Incoming freshmen Carlos Orr and Tysean Griffin are talented, but more likely to redshirt. And adding JuCo WR Mario Sanders was a late surprise. Perhaps the staff is either anticipating attrition or recruiting over some big names.
The easy answer is more Henry Boyer, please. He has massive potential as a blocker and could be Bielema’s next big-time pro tight end. He could become everything Luke Ford didn’t become on the field.
But other than Boyer, there are quite a few question marks. Tip Reiman participated in Senior Day but can come back. Reiman’s presence as a leader and a blocker could benefit a young room. Griffin Moore, who came in with Isaiah Williams, could return for another season. Maybe he will take a leap as a pass catcher. Tanner Arkin’s first year in Champaign had a couple of memorable moments. But he didn’t demonstrate that he is ready to take the room by the throat.
This is an area the Illini could use another no-doubt dude. They have two talented freshmen in the class of 2024. But hopefully, neither will have to burn a redshirt. Last year, the Illini passed on several accomplished tight ends in favor of Arkin. Will Coach Robby Discher want more veteran help in his position group? If I had to guess, I would say yes.
Well, Illinois will likely have to replace four starters. And sure, there are potential starters in the pipeline. Josh Gesky and Hunter Whitenack took their lumps this season. But both could step in and play guard next season. Brandon Henderson also took his licks in limited action. But the talented East St. Louis native could be a starting tackle for the Illini next season.
Josh Kreutz was mostly solid in his first season as a starter. But he could be pushed by rising redshirt-freshman TJ McMillen and true freshman stud Andrew Dennis. Although Dennis is still likely to redshirt (let’s hope), his talent could see him get some key playing time while preserving his eligibility.
But the Illini may need at least two experienced offensive tackles. To help Luke Altmyer reach his full potential, the offensive line has to keep him upright. This is where the Illini have to pursue legitimate, no-doubt P5 prospects. The JuCo ranks have been too hit-and-miss in terms of players immediately ready to contribute.
Bart Miller just pulled his biggest recruiting coup since his arrival in Champaign. Now, he has to do the evaluation work to right the ship.
With Johnny Newton and Keith Randolph, it was easy to just pencil in “excellent play forthcoming” into the game plan every week. Without them, there are more questions than answers. Denzel Daxon, who was effective in spurts, is out of eligibility. So Illinois will be replacing all three starters on the defensive line.
One of those spots may be filled by Gabe Jacas. Jacas improved as the year went on and even made some plays spelling Newton and Randolph. Jacas is one of the players to be most concerned about returning. He will undoubtedly get heavy attention from SEC and ACC programs looking to tap into his potential. But if he returns, he’ll undoubtedly be a (the?) star of this defense either on the line or off the edge.
Terrance Jamison did a solid job recruiting this position during the last couple of cycles. But let’s be honest, the losses of Jamel Howard and Trey Pierce still sting. They would have been the Law Firm 2.0. But they wound up in Madison and East Lansing. And Justin Scott, a five-star DL from Chicago St. Ignatius, didn’t even look Jamison’s way.
So the Illini have work to do. Alex Bray and Jeremiah Warren could be really good players. But this defense needs to get pressure from its front without massive blitzing. And TeRah Edwards can come back for another year. He has been a solid part-time contributor. But Illinois needs to surround this group with more.
The Illini have reportedly been in on multiple Ivy League linemen. That’s a good start. But this is the roster’s biggest need. Experienced guys who can create pressure and blow up sets from the interior matter a great deal to this defensive scheme. So this staff will have to scour the landscape thoroughly to make this defense competitive.
This room is coming together nicely. Even if Seth Coleman takes his excellent season’s momentum to the pros, this group has solid depth and talent. After getting a commitment from JuCo havoc wreaker Daniel Brown, the Illini have a ferocious group to get coached up by Charlie Bullen.
Even though Marquise Lightfoot eluded “Chuck,” the potential to flip Stanford commit Dylan Stevenson would add an astronomical gift to this position’s ceiling.
Even without Stevenson, Josaiah Knight could see some reps as a true freshman next season. Trey Smith and Jared Badie are both quick, athletic studs who just need health and reps. Alec Bryant and Ezekiel Holmes (if he comes back) provide system-experienced depth.
This isn’t a major recruiting priority.
Dylan Rosiek showed potential to be a stalwart for the Illinois defense. Kenenna Odeluga is a big play machine who suffered a brutal ankle injury in the Iowa game. James Kreutz is long, physical, and just damned mean. Losing captain Tarique Barnes won’t kill this group.
Rising redshirt-freshman Jojo Hayden has star potential. Malachi Hood is recovering from an injury that cost him the entire season. Ryan Meed is a regular special teams contributor who has some defensive snaps under his belt.
That is a good foundation. Andy Buh is one of the best teachers on the staff, so I am not sure he needs to go out and get a new toy to impact the defense. But without Newton and Randolph, a tackling machine in the middle would be a worthy target for a defense in flux.
Illinois suffered from inconsistent play from both safeties and corners this past season. Not only did the players who departed for the NFL leave a gaping hole, but so did the injury to Matthew Bailey. A returning Bailey with his leadership and playmaking skills makes this secondary immediately better.
Xavier Scott showcased some playmaking skill as did Miles Scott. But the blown coverages were numerous and the turnovers were generally lacking.
Taz Nicholson committed too many penalties and Tyler Strain was benched for his performance despite his blinding speed.
Freshmen Zachary Tobe and Saboor Karriem were up and down. But they’re freshmen, that seems to check out.
With Nicaro Harper, Clayton Bush, and legacy Illini Solo Turner definitely moving on, the Illini need proven Power Five prospects in the secondary. The JuCo ranks have not proven fruitful for Ilinois in the secondary. Coach Aaron Henry and Coach Antonio Fenelus have their work cut out for them. Reforming this defensive backfield on the fly proved daunting last season. Doing so again could prove damning.