CHAMPAIGN — Bret Bielema’s primary focus during the Illinois football season is his team.
Does the Illini coach spend time recruiting during game weeks?
Sure, but it’s a pittance compared to the work done to prepare for the next opponent, and it’s all done from the Smith Center.
But there is no opponent this week. Illinois (2-5, 1-3 Big Ten) won’t play again until an 11 a.m. kickoff on Oct. 23 at No. 7 Penn State (5-1, 2-1). So Bielema and the Illini coaching staff are taking advantage of the 68 evaluation days allotted each fall by the NCAA to turn their focus to the future.
Bielema gave himself about a 36-hour window at the beginning of this week to go on the road with offensive line coach Bart Miller.
The duo visited four states, including Kansas and Iowa, to scout and evaluate that position group of need. The plan for the rest of the week has coordinators Ryan Walters and Tony Petersen staying in Champaign to help run Thursday’s practice, while the rest of the assistants hit the road.
“Thursday and Friday, I wanted to give them a full 48-hour window to get in as many evaluations, academic and athletic, and there will be a limited number of us on Saturday that will be out and about,” Bielema said. “I’ll be out Saturday, as well, and get back late Saturday night before we jump into the Penn State eval for Sunday.”
Those recruiting trips and evaluations will cover prospects in the 2022-24 classes. Illinois has 15 players committed in the Class of 2022 after three-star defensive lineman Brian Allen decommitted Tuesday. That group ranks ninth in the Big Ten and 46th nationally, per 247Sports.
A strong in-state push in the Class of 2022, which was a key part of Bielema’s recruiting plan when he got the Illinois job, led to numerous commitments. Of the 15 players currently pledged to sign with the Illini in either December or February, eight are from the state.
The Illinois staff will continue to recruit some high-school prospects in the Class of 2022, but transfers will likely play a key role in roster building for the 2022 season. Bielema and Co. have a personnel meeting scheduled for Sunday — one of several to come in the next few weeks that will chart the course for the coming year. Illinois has another week off in November, playing at Minnesota on Nov. 6 and then not again until Nov. 20 at Iowa.
“Really after these next three games when we go into that second bye week, we have to have a pretty good understanding of who is coming back and who is going to be moving on,” Bielema said, while also recognizing some players could leave or declare for the NFL draft that the coaches don’t expect. “The roster is a constant evolution. We have a baseline of what we’re doing, but it’s a work in progress every day from a recruiting standpoint on pure roster numbers.”
What makes the roster math a bit trickier is the bonus year granted to every player last season because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That created the opportunity for nearly two dozen super seniors this year. Nearly an equal number of Illinois upperclassmen will have that opportunity this coming offseason.
The decision to stay or go will be a two-way discussion with Bielema and the coaching staff given scholarships are only guaranteed for four years. Bielema welcomed back all of the super seniors that wanted to return for this season, because the NCAA changed its roster limitations for scholarship players. Those revert to normal in 2022 — 85 scholarship players only.
“Last year, because of COVID, it presented a very unique opportunity for a coach to come in who didn’t know his roster and invite everybody back,” Bielema said. “I just felt that was something that was important to us to maximize where we were — all those super seniors were going to be counted as pure bonuses. But that can’t be the case moving forward. The NCAA has not allowed us to do that.
“What they’ve done is given everybody a COVID bonus year, but they didn’t give the institutions or the program the ability to maintain that. It’s kind of, for a lack of better term, they’ve made a promise that they can’t cash.”
One recent change in NCAA legislation, though, will help Illinois in the short term. Teams can now sign seven additional transfers beyond the maximum 25 new scholarship players per year. For a team like Illinois potentially losing more than three dozen seniors this offseason, those additional spots for transfers will come in handy.
“It’s something I was kind of banking on,” Bielema said. “Now, you can actually bring 32 new people into the program, which for us as a program, we wouldn’t have been able to get to 85 scholarship players if that rule hadn’t passed. It’s a tremendous advantage for us. But those seven transfer players who come in, whether they’re from junior college, whether they’re from the transfer portal or grad transfers, is kind of a work in progress.”