Illinois Football: Bret Bielema adjusting well to transfer portal chaos

Illinois v Iowa
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The transfer portal can seem daunting to many, but Illinois football head coach Bret Bielema seems to be keeping up with the changing recruiting landscape.

Not only was there a lot of turmoil within the Illini program when Bielema entered the picture in December 2020, but college football was changing before our eyes. The transfer portal really started to heat up, and now that is the main talking point for the college football offseason.

A lot of teams are struggling with the transfer portal for one reason or another. Finding a nice balance between developing freshmen and players who can come in and make an impact from day one is key.

Bielema seems to have found that balance fairly quickly, as the Illini are sitting in a good position for the class of 2024.

Illinois football 2024 transfer portal departures

There are a lot of teams going through a lot of changes on the roster due to the transfer portal. Bielema has bucked that trend, as the Illinois roster seems pretty stable.

While Illinois has had a handful of transfer portal departures, there aren’t a lot of big hits. The biggest departure is probably running back Reggie Love III. Heading into 2024, I believe he was going to see a timeshare, at best, with Kaden Feagin.

Illinois is losing 32 starts in the transfer portal with 23 of those starts coming from cornerback Taz Nicholson. He is the most experienced player departing the program, but Nicholson has struggled as of late. He finished the 2023 season ranked as the No. 437 cornerback in college football.

Illinois football 2024 transfer portal additions

Bielema addressed some holes on the roster with the transfer portal. This is exactly how you should use this offseason tool.

The Illinois offensive line struggled during the 2023 season. Julian Pearl, Jordyn Slaughter, and Isaiah Adams are attempting to make the NFL, and Zachary Barlev has entered the transfer portal. All four offensive linemen ranked sub-200 at their respective positions.

How did Bielema respond to these departures? He went out and snagged guard Kevin Wigenton, who ranked as the No. 120 guard in the country in 2023. Illinois also secured the transfer of JC Davis, who ranked as the No. 8 tackle in the nation.

Illinois lost the entire starting defensive line. Jer’Zhan Newton, Keith Randolph Jr., and Denzel Daxon all entered the 2024 NFL Draft. To help replace those talented linemen, Bielema went out and secured transfers from two solid players with potential.

Enyce Sledge committed to Auburn in 2022 as a top 1000 recruit, but he didn’t get a chance to play. So, he is now coming to Illinois with three years remaining. Joining Sledge is Anthony Johnson out of Youngstown State. Johnson finished 2023 with 25 tackles and four sacks. Bielema added depth and potential to join the talent already on the roster on the Illinois defensive line.

Illinois hasn’t had a great pass-catching tight end in a long time. In addition to that fact, the Illini lost starting tight end Tip Reiman to the NFL after the 2023 season. Bielema addressed this position with a huge addition in Cole Rusk. Rusk ranked as the No. 64 tight end out of the 436 teams in FBS and FCS last season. That is an upgrade from Reiman, who ranked as the No. 197 tight end.

Illinois football 2024 transfer portal needs

While Bielema has done a great job filling voids on the roster, there are still plenty of issues that need to be addressed.

Illinois needs to add to the secondary. Our cornerbacks struggled greatly, and we lost the most experienced cornerback in Nicholson. I do love some of the young players on the roster, but adding a cornerback or two from the transfer portal would probably be a good idea.

I wouldn’t mind Bielema going into the transfer portal and pulling out a linebacker. Illinois has some okay depth pieces, specifically in the middle linebacker role, but adding a quality linebacker in the portal would help create competition and bolster the talent at this crucial position.

Adding another defensive lineman from the transfer portal is a good idea too. While we have Sledge and Johnson coming in, Illinois lost all three starting defensive linemen from the 2023 season. More depth is needed on the defensive line.