Penn State transfer Tommy Stevens visited Illinois (Sunday and Monday, I believe?). He has a visit set for Mississippi State this weekend, and in between the two, he added a visit to Kentucky. His services are very much in demand, and that really means something. More than rankings, more than high school reputation, if you want to follow the difference-makers in college football, follow the players who are in demand.
Let's start with a few Illini examples. Because he has proven to be the best player in the 2017 class, most Illini fans think of Bobby Roundtree as a highly-rated recruit. He wasn't. The composite rankings had Roundtree as the 15th-best player in the 2017 class. His composite rating (.8326) was more or less the same as offensive tackle Evan Kirts (.8343) in this incoming class.
Roundtree was obviously better than that. And we kind of knew that back then. Why? Because he was in demand. The recruiting services saw "will pick between Illinois and Indiana on signing day" and said "low three-star". Yes, those two schools were in on him early and made his "final two" list. But that doesn't tell the whole story. After a big senior season, Bobby Roundtree was very much in demand. Virginia Tech, Louisville, Mississippi State, Kentucky, and Michigan State all offered and all pursued him aggressively. That happened late in the recruiting cycle, so it really didn't bump his ranking, but the reason I boosted his Tom Cruises to 3.5 (more or less a 7 on my 1-to-10 ranking system) was his in-demand-ness that winter. On signing day, most everyone was focused on Owen Carney (who we pulled away from Florida State) and Lere Oladipo (who we pulled away from Penn State and Michigan State), but low-three-star Bobby Roundtree was the most in demand. And, he's probably the best football player on the 2019 Illini team.
On the opposite side, there's players who aren't in demand. Reuben Unije is a decent example of this. Unije was still a 4-star in some services when he picked Illinois in December of 2017. But he wasn't really "in demand". Many wondered aloud at the time if he even had any other pursuers at the time. He had a lot of "offers" at the time (Alabama, Oklahoma, Florida, etc), but when he visited and then verballed to Illinois, he didn't seem to have any other teams after him. If you want to know why I gave a 4-star recruit two Tom Cruises, that's a big reason why. (If you're not aware, Unije didn't last long, leaving last fall during the first few weeks of his first semester at Illinois.)
You can apply this same logic to transfers. They're harder to track, I think, for two reasons:
1) Many schools would rather develop a player for 4-5 years than bring in a transfer for 1-2 years. The secret to the Iowa/Wisconsin model of never losing more than 5 games is player development. Sure, they might find a transfer - maybe even a juco - who is talented and can play right away. But that player takes up a scholarship that was going to be used by a freshman who was going to be redshirted and developed for five years. And that's more important in their system. Their fourth-year redshirt junior linebackers make more tackles than our higher-ranked true sophomore linebackers every single year.
2) High school ranking no longer applies. Most players announce transfer because they didn't cut it at their current school. That doesn't mean they're busts - the last two Heisman Trophy winners transferred to Oklahoma from Texas Tech and Texas A&M, and most A&M fans considered Kyler Murray a "bust" when he left - but in the majority of cases, players are transferring "down". They leave Notre Dame and transfer to Wake Forest, they leave Wake Forest and transfer to Middle Tennessee State, they leave Middle Tennessee State and transfer to Elon. In their search for playing time, they step down a level. And because of that, their high school ranking no longer applies.
But, as we covered with Wole Betiku and Trevon Sidney, you can still find serviceable players when they transfer from the big boys. Especially, as in their cases, players dealing with injuries who were passed up by other 4-stars on the roster. It's a cruel world, roster-wise, at a place like USC. And Illinois can benefit from that world.
However, there's also a very tell-tale sign when you use "in demand" as your guide. Two graduate transfer quarterbacks visited Illinois in the last 72 hours. One of them has four visits lined up. The other one, as far as I can tell, had only one (Illinois). And that gives us 80% of our "so, can these guys contribute?" answer right there.
(Note: I'm aware that USC junior QB Matt Fink has been linked to Illinois. His dad told the Los Angeles Times that Matt was transferring to Illinois. I'm holding off on writing a LLUOI post because A) writing them for transfers has been a curse this spring, so I'll wait to see them show up on campus, and B) the school hasn't announced the transfer yet, and until that happens, this could just be his dad jumping the gun while we're waiting for a Stevens answer.)
There's so much going on here that I think I need to make a list.
- We are desperate for quarterback help. Our quarterback roster going into the fall: three freshmen. Every coach in the country, when flipping through their phone looking at college football news waiting for the offensive staff meeting to start, will say "whoa - did you see Illinois only has three freshmen QB's?" when they read about it. It's notable. It's a "bring it up at the meeting because they all know that means that Illinois is screwed" kind of thing. They'll all tell you that three freshman QB's - even if it's three four-star freshman QB's - means you're in big, big trouble. So we can establish that desperate times call for desperate measures here.
- Tommy Stevens and Matt Fink are the kind of quarterbacks we need. Brandon Peters is transferring from Michigan, but Brandon Peters is more of a pocket passer. We need someone who can run. That's what makes this offense go.
- The ideal candidate is obvious. Get Khalil Tate to somehow grad-transfer from Arizona. He was a Heisman candidate when Rod Smith was his QB Coach/Coordinator at Arizona. He fits this offense as well as any QB in the country. But... it appears like Tate is staying at Arizona, so the number one option probably isn't an option. (But if you want to talk about a QB who would be in demand, hoo-boy).
- Yes, Isaiah Williams is the future. At least that's how the coaches have recruited, stacking all of their chips on red number 1. But Isaiah Williams won't have his first practice in this offense until August, and expecting him to be ready to start by August 31 is expecting too much. Ideally (this won't happen, but ideally), IW would have two years as an understudy and then three years as the starter.
- Of the two quarterbacks who visited, Stevens is in demand (Mississippi State, Kentucky visits) and Fink is not (I can't find any news stories on any other offers or visits). I don't say that to take a shot at Matt Fink, that's just the reality. Yes, the transfer market is flush with quarterbacks looking for playing time, and with schools either not interested in transfers or looking at someone else, it's rough going for these guys right now. But "in demand" needs to be established here - Stevens is in demand, Fink is not.
So with Matt Fink apparently verballing... I still want to add Stevens. Especially since Fink is a two-year grad transfer and Stevens is just one year. The perfect scenario for me would be Stevens the starter in 2019, Fink the starter in 2020, and Isaiah Williams the starter in 2021, 2022, and 2023. It obviously won't happen that way, but that would give us three years of starters all in their third season (or later) of their career. Which is just "how to win in college football".
If it's just Fink? Hey, that's an upgrade. Adding a redshirt junior to a quarterback room of three freshmen is really big. You need competition and experience, and he adds the experience (and hopefully a lot of competition).
But ideally, we also add Stevens. He's very much in demand and would be a massive boost to the 2019 Illini team. He'd be more of a boost than AJ Bush was for the 2018 Illini team. If you want to win football games, you have to win battles for in-demand players. Until it doesn't happen, I'm still holding out hope that we can land Stevens.
Yes, there are options here I'm not even discussing. Matt Robinson made my team of "guys" at training camp last year. Coran Taylor was the best QB in the spring game. There are still options here. They're just redshirt freshmen.
Which means we need an experienced guy to transfer in and seize the job. Hopefully one who is in demand.