The transfer portal is in full swing, and the Illinois football program is filling in some massive holes left by some legendary talent.
Every Illini fan will remember Jer’Zhan Newton and his All-American abilities. The kid was one of the best to ever play for the Orange and Blue. Now that Newton is heading to the NFL, and many more are departing for one reason or another, Bret Bielema is tasked with continuing to build and develop the program.
Illinois has already hit the transfer portal hard, landing two defensive linemen Enyce Sledge and Clay Patterson who will both help solidify the front three next season. While there are plenty of options left for the Illini to land in the transfer portal, there is also a nice balance a head coach has to find between transfer portal talent and young talent coming out of high school.
Bielema seems to have found that nice balance throughout his first few years at Illinois. December 2020 was not an easy time to come into a new team, but Bielema took a pretty grim situation in the Illini program and has started to rebuild from the ground up.
Illinois football is recruiting at a higher level under Bret Bielema than in years past
Bielema came into the Illinois program with the cupboard nearly bare. In the four recruiting classes prior to Bielema taking over – and yes, I am counting the class of 2021 – Illinois had a total of 20 top-1000 recruits in the 247Sports Composite Ranking.
Yes, some of the players who were recruited in these classes went on to do great things. Devon Witherspoon was unranked, Jer’Zhan Newton wasn’t a top-1000 recruit, and the same can be said for Sydney Brown. These players blossomed under Bielema, and the fact Illinois didn’t have talent behind these great athletes was a huge issue on the field.
Bielema is starting to stack talent. He isn’t just relying on the transfer portal to build the Illini. He is using the transfer portal to patch up the boat so it doesn’t sink.
While the four recruiting classes prior to Bielema only had 20 top-1000 recruits, the three classes since he arrived – I am counting the class of 2024 even though it isn’t finished yet – have a combined 31 top-1000 recruits. Out of these 31 players, 13 are in the top 750, and five are in the top 500.
To say these numbers are encouraging would be an understatement. In three recruiting classes so far, Bielema has 11 more top-1000 recruits than the Illinois football program had in the four recruiting classes prior to his arrival. Bielema is using the transfer portal to patch holes, not to build a program.