Who What When Where Why
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So maybe you saw a few transfer portal announcements this morning. I came to this coffeeshop to write 90 Illini posts for numbers 66, 65, and 64 on my list and by 10:00 am all three had announced they were transferring. Why would they transfer? Where are they going? What does this mean? Let's get into it.
Let's start with the "news" portion. Eight players announced a transfer this morning. Here's the list, with a small blurb about each of them:
- Kyron Cumby - 2019 recruit who was a WR under Lovie but was switched to running back this spring.
- James Frenchie - 2020 WR recruit from Trinity Catholic (Cory Patterson) who was the highest rated player in that class.
- Phifer Griffin - 2020 offensive tackle recruit from North Carolina.
- Brevyn Jones - Offensive lineman who transferred in from Mississippi State after Mike Leach got the MSU job.
- Tre'Von Riggins - Defensive lineman who flipped from Miami late in the 2020 recruiting calendar.
- Anthony Shipton - Junior college defensive tackle from California.
- Blaise Sparks - Offensive lineman from Florida in the 2020 class.
- Kevin Tyler - Offensive lineman from St. Louis in the 2020 class.
There might be more, but as of the very moment that I'm typing this, those are the eight players transferring out.
We'll go to the "what" next, but let me give you a little hint before where get to the "why" portion: on The 90 Illini, my yearly ranking of every player from 90th-most important to #1, the player rankings for these players who are leaving were 60 (Riggins), 64 (Frenchie), 65 (Cumby), 66 (Shipton), 69 (Jones), 80 (Sparks), 84 (Tyler), and 97 (Griffin, who did not make the top-90). When you note that the starters usually run from 1 to 22 and the backups run from 23 to 44, the highest ranking for any player here being 60th gives a little hint as to why they might be looking for playing time elsewhere.
I prefer to use "what" here to mean "whaaaaat is happening right now?". Eight players transferring the same day? You know it's not "rats from a sinking ship" because the ship is six months old, so what's going on?
The "what" here is the NCAA rule that players intending to transfer must do so by July 1st. When the one-time transfer rule was approved ("one time" meaning that players can't transfer for free every year, but one time during their career they can transfer somewhere else without sitting out), here were the guidelines published by the NCAA:
Q1: What criteria does the student-athlete need to meet in order to utilize the new Division I one-time exception to seek immediate transfer eligibility?
A1: In order to meet the criteria of the one-time transfer exception, the student-athlete must:
• Transfer from a four-year collegiate institution to an NCAA Division I school;
• Leave their current four-year school academically eligible;
• Have not transferred previously from another four-year institution, and
• Certify in writing, along with their new head coach, they did not have direct or indirect communication with the new school's athletics staff prior to entering the NCAA Transfer Portal.
Additionally, a student-athlete must provide their current school with a written request to enter the NCAA Transfer Portal by July 1, 2021 (all sports) to use the one-time exception.
What's happening here? Players are entering the portal on June 29th because by Thursday they won't be able to transfer anymore.
Let's talk timeframe. If these players didn't see any playing time on the horizon, why did they not transfer at the end of the semester in early May? Why go all the way to the end of June?
My guess - and this isn't something I know that happened, just my guess - is that the new staff set a full evaluation period for their new roster. From early January when they returned to campus to today. Here's my guess as to how it went down.
As I've mentioned in several posts recently, as of 2014, all scholarships in the Big Ten are guaranteed for four years. If you're offered a full ride and you sign that LOI, you are entitled to those four years and that degree. The 2006 SEC where coaches would just jettison their worst players to open up scholarships (with the kid having no say in the matter) no longer exists. If a kid wants to stay, he can stay for four years and get his degree.
But that doesn't mean players won't transfer up or down. If a quarterback is a superstar at Eastern Washington, he's going to transfer up to Oregon to give Power Five football a shot. If a kid is a step slow at linebacker at Purdue, he might transfer down to Indiana State in search of playing time. The decision has to be made by the kid, but there's nothing wrong with coaches providing information like "we'll be honest - you're our 5th tight end right now and we have three more coming in the next class" (or whatever). If I was that kid, I'd want to know that information so I could make a decision on whether I wanted to transfer in search of playing time, stay and get my Illinois degree, or even stay to prove them wrong and climb the depth chart.
So my guess - just a guess - is that the transfers happening at the end of June means the coaches used the full extent of the calendar in order to deliver accurate evaluations to each player. January and February workouts with the strength staff. Spring ball. June player-led workouts and sessions with the strength staff. Some players were obviously going to return because they've stated the last two years and plan to start again. But some players were probably on the fence.
Let's use Kyron Cumby. He ran a 10.28 dash in high school. But he's listed at 5'-8" and is probably closer to 5'-7" or maybe even 5'-6". Rod Smith saw him as a "split him out wide and jet sweep him into the backfield" kind of wide receiver. The new offensive staff did not see a role for him at wide receiver so they moved him to running back this spring. New offense, new role.
He then has a decision. He sees the staff recruiting 6'-3" Josh McCray and then 6'-3" Jordan Anderson and thinks "uh, if they want gigantic power tailbacks, what's my role here?". It could have been as simple as Cumby being homesick and wanting to go back to Texas, but it could also be "new staff, new role, I want my old role somewhere else."
My guess is that the final verdict on things like that - the answer to "coach, where do you see me fitting?" - was maybe delivered by the end of last week after a full evaluation. And these eight players decided to look elsewhere. Quarterback Coran Taylor accepted a switch to safety and stayed here even though the answer was that he was pretty far down the QB depth chart. A guy like Cumby simply decided to leave.
How can I use "where" here? Ooh - I've got it.
Where did these players fit on the depth chart?
Here's my latest depth chart from May with the players who are transferring in bold. If you don't see a player listed, I did not have him on the current three-deep.
QB | Peters (SR) | Sitkowski (rs-SO) | Spann (FR)
RB | C. Brown (rs-SO) | Hayden (rs-JR) | Love (FR)
TE1 | Barker (rs-JR) | Reiman (FR-walkon) | Marchese (SR)
TE2 | Ford (rs-SO) | Rosenthal (rs-JR) | Moore (FR)
LT | Lowe (SR) | Kirts (rs-FR) | Jones (rs-FR)
LG | Jeresaty (SR) | V. Brown (rs-SO) | Wisecarver (FR)
C | Kramer (SR) | Plohr (rs-FR) | Kreutz (FR)
RG | Pihlstrom (rs-JR) | Slaughter (rs-SO) | Tyler (FR)
RT | Palczewski (SR) | Pearl (rs-SO) | Okpala (rs-FR)
WR-slot | Williams (rs-FR) | Armstrong (JR) | Frenchie (FR)
WR-X | Hightower (JR) | Thompson (rs-JR) | Campbell (rs-FR)
WR-Y | Navarro (JR) | Sandy (SO) | Beason (rs-FR)
LOLB | Gay (SR) | Coleman (rs-FR) | Mondesir (SR)
LE | Randolph (rs-FR) | Pate (rs-JR) | McConnell (FR)
NT | Perry (SR) | Avery (JR) | Shipton (JR)
RE | Newton (FR) | Woods (SR) | Riggins (FR)
ROLB | Carney (SR) | Holmes (rs-SO) | Schultz (rs-FR-walkon)
LLB | Hart (rs-SO) | Cooper (rs-FR) | Meed (SO-walkon)
ILB1 | Hansen (SR) | T. Barnes (SO) | Rosiek (FR)
ILB2 | Tolson (JR) | McEachern (JR) | Darkangelo (SO-walkon)
CB | Witherspoon (SO) | K. Smith (SR) | Edwards (FR)
CB | Adams (SR) | Leitzsey (SR) | Nicholson (FR)
SS | S. Brown (JR) | Hudson (SR) | D. Smith (JR)
FS | Martin (JR) | E. Smith (JR) | Joseph (JR)
Kicker | McCourt (SR) | Griffin (rs-SO)
Punter | Hayes (SR) | Robertson (FR)
Longsnapper | Tabel (SR) | Hall (rs-FR)
Punt Return | Navarro (JR) | Cumby (rs-FR)
KO Return | Cumby (rs-FR) | Love (FR)
So I had Cumby as the kickoff returner and the backup punt returner (just a guess - that's not anything we saw during the spring), but other than that, every player leaving was third-string or lower going into the season. Which finally gets us to...
I've been writing about it all spring and summer. In at least five of the 90 Illini posts I've said "this is a guy who would be #51 on this list but 21 Super Seniors returned so he's here at 72". With 21 scholarship players returning from last season, the path from "on the roster" to "starting" is a lot longer for some of these guys.
And really, that's not just because of the Super Seniors in 2021 (although for someone like Kevin Tyler, four offensive linemen returning for another season made the starting lineup look so far away). A lot of it is because everyone - not just the seniors - gets an extra year of eligibility.
Let's use Anthony Shipton as an example. He was a juco transfer who arrived last fall but did not play. That's OK though, because last year did not count. So he can try it again in 2021.
But if I have it correctly and he's chasing the nose tackle spot, not only is Rod Perry returning for one more year, but Calvin Avery can now be here two more years, not just one. So in a best case scenario, Shipton was looking at third-string NT (not playing) in 2021 and then Calvin Avery's backup in 2022. And that's as long as he holds off the other nose tackles.
Just repeat that scenario for everyone. Kevin Tyler wants to chase that right guard spot. But if the battle is really between Alex Pihlstrom (who now has 2 more years of eligibility) and Verdis Brown (who now has 3 more years of eligibility), how far off does a possible starting spot seem?
Look at it that way and the "why" seems clear here. The chance to play seems too far away and so these players will look elsewhere for an opportunity. Some accepted a position switch (Isaiah Williams to WR, Coran Taylor to safety), and some decided to just move on down the road.
Did I cover it all? I think I covered it all. All 115 lockers in the locker room are taken and at least 10 of them are doubled-up with two players sharing the same locker. This will be the largest Illini roster in decades. There are more Super Seniors returning here than any other school in the country.
And when all of that happens, some players are going to choose to leave.