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Why Illinois can make a living off of transfer quarterbacks

Bush, Peters, DeVito, now Altmyer. Is this a trend here to stay?

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AJ Bush, Brandon Peters, Artur Sitkowski, Tommy DeVito, and now Luke Altmyer. Since 2018 transfer quarterbacks have been the way to go for the Illini.

It has produced mixed results in the past, but can it be a way to sustain success?

The successes of transfer QBs

Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio - Wisconsin v Oregon

Bret Bielema

Scott Tolkien (Developed) 2010

  • Team success: 11-2, Rose Bowl (L), End AP rank 7, 539 points scored
  • Player success: 72.9% comp, 2459 yards, 16-6 TD-INT, 165.9 rate

Russell Wilson (Transfer) 2011

  • Team success: 11-3, Rose Bowl (L), End AP rank 10, 618 points scored
  • Player success: 72.8% comp, 3175 yards, 33-4 TD-INT 191.8 rate

In terms of team success between the years that Bielema handed the reins to a Wisconsin developed player vs. a transfer QB, it was very similar. The only major difference is in points scored, where the team led by Wilson scored 79 more points than the team scored the year prior. That is a lot of points.

Player success told a similar story. Russell Wilson had a lot more yards, an otherworldly TD-INT ratio, and the 13th-best QB efficiency rating of all-time for a single year. This was not a case of changing from a running to a passing system either, as the lead back for Wilson’s offense managed 872 more rushing yards than that of Tolkien.

Is it unfair to use the example of Wilson, who had one of the best single seasons in NCAA history and is a nine-time Pro Bowler? Probably. But it is also one of the only times Bielema has brought in a transfer QB before his Illini tenure.

Here's an Illini example.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 13 Purdue at Illinois Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Lovie Smith

Jeff George Jr./Chayce Crouch/Cam Thomas (Developed) 2017

  • Team success: 2-10, No bowl, 185 points scored
  • Player(s) success: 49.4% comp, 2091 yards, 8-19 TD-INT, ~100 rate

AJ Bush (Transfer) 2018

  • Team success: 4-8, No bowl, 312 points scored
  • Player success: 53.9% comp, 1413 yards + 733 rushing, 6-10 TD-INT + 8 rush TD, 108.5 rate

When I asked the question “can transfer quarterbacks sustain success”, 4-8 isn’t necessarily the success I was talking about, but there was never really success to sustain here. That being said, the year AJ Bush had wasn’t as bad as it looks. The defense gave up nearly 100 more points than 2017, and Bush still led the team to two more wins. This is because of an astounding 127 more points scored on the offensive end.

The rushing ability of Bush provided something a change in culture and a change in strategy that led to more success on the field, which is a thing that really only something as big as a head coaching change or a transfer QB can provide.

How can annual or biannual transfer QBs lead to success?

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Evolving culture

Tommy DeVito provided an immediate culture change that showed throughout the entire clubhouse when he arrived. Tom DeVito, his father, said this after Tommy’s waiver for an extra season was denied.

“He was instantly accepted and instantly liked by everyone in the building... he really wished he could play another year there because he truly enjoyed himself.”

Even though the program is at a good spot right now and not necessarily in need of a change, Altmyer is providing a different sense of leadership than DeVito did. According to Isaiah Williams, Altmyer started off as a “lead by example” type of player, but he has flipped a switch and now “he’s all about brotherhood. He's a guy who cares about others, holds others to the standard.”

Evolving Strategy

What goes along with constant culture change is a constant change in the way the game is played. Every QB is a different type of player that can make different types of throws, or has the stamina to make more or less passes throughout a game. This change in strategy can be tough on players who have to learn different tendencies with every new transfer QB, but it can also be tough on opposing coordinators and defenses.

In Brandon Peters’ first season for the Illini he had a TD-INT ratio of 18-8 and an efficiency rating of about 128. In his last, with a couple seasons under his belt with the team one would think the numbers would improve, but the TD-INT ratio dropped to 7-4 and his rating was about 120. Bringing in DeVito the following season made a huge leap to a 15-4 TD-INT ratio and a 141.2 rating. DeVito was very successful and a great pull from Bielema and staff. The question is, will Altmyer be able to create the same culture shift as DeVito and bring the success along with it?

The Deciding Year

I think what will decide if the Illini decide to continue in this direction is simply how well Altmyer plays. If this coaching staff can bring in two consecutive transfer quarterbacks that bring success with them, there will be enough examples to lead the staff to continue with the transfer trend.

Especially in a new era where transferring to play is much easier, and with NIL deals being able to be worked up and dished out to some of the best college football talent out there, the possibility of transfer quarterbacks being the new “thing” for the Illini is more than there.