By HCR Staff | June 4, 2020
Some Power 5 programs lack a natural recruiting base, so they have to innovate, and one innovation simply is to poach on the ‘leftovers’ from programs that have higher quality recruiting bases.
This is what came to mind when we read about the changing focus of roster composition at the University of Illinois. The Illini football program, led by former Bears and Bucs head coach Lovie Smith has added 19 transfers and graduate transfers from other FBS or FCS programs.
The Illini have transfers from major conferences such as starting quarterback Brandon Peters, a Michigan transfer but also former Wofford offensive lineman Blake Jerseaty. Illinois had to bring these players in as they have not had much success recruiting and developing players out of high schools.
They are not the only program to bring in a large number of transfers. There are nine “Power 5” teams that have over double digit FBS or FCS transfers on their roster. The Illini with 19 transfers are one behind the conference leader, Rutgers, which has 20 players that were once members of another FBS or FCS program.
Group of 5 and FCS programs supplying top talent to Power 5 conference schools are increasingly seen as developmental programs for the Power 5 schools. This off-season, there’s been 41 FCS to FBS transfers. Some more than others. Take Wofford for example. This off-season the Terriers lost three linemen to transfer.
FCS and lower FBS players see a transfer as a way to get recognition and they have the perception that it increases the likelihood of receiving an NFL opportunity. It looks like a wise choice.
In recent years, offensive lineman Jack Driscoll transferred from UMass to Auburn and running back Joshua Kelly left UC Davis for UCLA and both were selected in the 2020 Draft.
This off-season, North Dakota State All-American linebacker Jabril Cox transferred to LSU.
The frequency of these transfers highlight a number of key points about college football:
- Players should be able to transfer freely– They deserve to be able to transfer from school to school without negative remarks. They should not be shamed by anyone for leaving. They are doing what is right for them.
- Group of 5/ FCS programs have outstanding coaches – They are identifying and developing players that have been looked over by bigger programs. The difficult part is that they for the most part won’t get the benefit of doing so. The new school and coaching staff will receive the benefit of much of their hard work. However, FCS coaches need to capitalize on this and talk openly about the players they helped develop.
- Group of 5/ FCS programs need to do more to retain and keep their players happy. This might require head coaches to have difficult conversations with athletic directors about the resources provided to players to elevate the player experience. Wining doesn’t stop players from transferring. The previously mentioned Wofford Terriers have reached the playoffs four years in a row and they lost three players. The defending national champion (North Dakota State) lost their best player and pro prospect (Cox). If they have a hard time retaining their best players, that’s an issue in the sport.
- FBS recruiting and development is an imperfect science. I’ve had conversations with FBS coaches where they suggest, (in jest, I think) that they will use scholarships at certain positions only on players that other smaller programs helped develop. At some places, they know they can’t develop their own talent or that it’s just easier to have someone else do it for them.
- A head coach’s first hires are important – The Illini went the transfer portal route due to an inability to secure top local talent. Perhaps they didn’t hire the right people to identify and recruit players early on. You have all the resources that a rich Power 5 conference school has, but you can’t attract talent? This appears a shortcoming of Lovie Smith’s hiring choices.
- The mass transfer route is going to be a strategy employed by the desperate. There are various states of desperation. Rutgers desperately needs transfers to just be competitive. (The Scarlet Knights went 0-9 in conference including four games where they didn’t score a touchdown and four other games where they scored 7 points or less) The Illini need to go this route to probably save jobs. Sure, Smith received an extension, but donors and alumni aren’t patient. Smith’s record at Illinois is 15-34 overall and 8-28 in conference.
The sport is collectively stronger when FCS programs can retain players and attain and sustain success. Sure, it’s good when the Illiini compete and can reach a bowl game as they did last year. But it’s equally as important for a program like Wofford to do as well. Head coach Josh Conklin is trying to build a program at Wofford just like they are at Illinois, whether you know about them or not.