Transfer portal might be needed to save the Illinois football class of 2025

While the class of 2025 got off to a good start, it looks like the Illinois football team might need the transfer portal to bolster the incoming group of players.
Jul 26, 2023; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini head coach Bret Bielema speaks to the media during the Big 10 football media day at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 26, 2023; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini head coach Bret Bielema speaks to the media during the Big 10 football media day at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports / Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois football recruiting has been a roller coaster of emotions throughout my entire life.

It was a weird golden age of Illini recruiting in the mid-to-late 2000s when Ron Zook was bringing in five-star players. I don’t ask questions about how that happened.

Since the Zook era, Illinois recruiting has been on a severe decline into mediocrity at best. It has been a struggle to find a top-40 recruiting class, which makes it very difficult to compete in the Big Ten, let alone on a national level.

When Bret Bielema was hired, I expected a nice surge in recruiting. So far, I haven’t been disappointed. Bielema entered the Illinois program with the last two recruiting classes in 2020 and 2021 ranking No. 66 and No. 70, respectively, according to 247Sports.

It’s a tough ask to have Bielema build the Illini program back up and get recruiting on the right track. He has done a solid job through his first three full recruiting classes, though.

Illinois football has put together decent recruiting classes in the first three years of Bret Bielema as head coach

Every recruiting site is different, but for the most part, they all agree that Illinois’ recruiting has improved in the Bielema era.

When it comes to 247Sports, Illinois has seen a gradual improvement in Bielema’s first three recruiting classes. We snagged the No. 63 class in 2022. Bielema then followed that recruiting class with the No. 54 class in 2023 and the No. 45 class in 2024.

On3 has Illinois with the No. 53 class in 2022, the No. 40 class in 2023, and the No. 46 class in 2024. Rivals give the Illini the best outlook for recruiting, as they have Illinois with the No. 39 class in 2022, the No. 36 class in 2023, and the No. 45 class in 2024.

Quality talent has emerged from each of those first three recruiting classes as well. Isaiah Adams was in the 2022 class, and he is now in the NFL. Zy Crisler is an NFL prospect and is starting on the offensive line this season. He was also from the class of 2022.

I think the one-two punch of Malik Elzy at wide receiver and Kaden Feagin at running back is going to be great for the Illini this season. Both players were the cream of the crop in the class of 2023. So, there are plenty of big-time players Bielema has brought in from those recruiting classes.

It looks like Bret Bielema will need some help from the transfer portal if he wants to save the Illinois football class of 2025

There are a lot of good feelings about those first three recruiting classes, but Illinois is now in the midst of the class of 2025.

The 2025 class got off to a good start with some key pledges early on. There is some solid talent in this group, but momentum for this recruiting class has slowed to a near halt lately.

Illinois’ class of 2025 sits with 13 commitments. 247Sports has this group ranked No. 57 in the country, On3 has them as the No. 52 class, and Rivals has the Illini recruiting class ranked No. 53 overall.

There is still plenty of time for commitments, as early National Signing Day doesn’t happen until December. But my biggest issue is where will the commitments come from.

Illinois had quite a few players take official visits in the month of June. This visit spree earned the program multiple commitments, but there were some key players who didn’t end up picking Illinois as their landing spot.

According to 247Sports, 26 players have taken an official visit since April 19. Among the 26 visits are the 13 players who are currently committed. What worries me is that out of the other 13 who haven’t committed to Illinois but took an official visit, 10 of those recruits are now committed to other programs. That leaves three players who took official visits still left on the board.

One of those recruits who is left, Charles Bass, makes his commitment on Wednesday afternoon. This is a big recruitment for the Illini, but Missouri is the projected landing spot for the talented defensive back. If you are reading this, Bass might already be committed.

With that being said, the options are dwindling quickly. In my eyes, there are two options for the Illini to take in the coming months that could help build the class of 2025.

The first option is to have a good season. Illinois needs to start the non-conference well and show players Champaign is a place where they can not only play and earn NIL money, but it is also a place where you can win football games.

Winning might get some new eyes on the program. It would also potentially help pry a player or two away from a program. Flipping a recruit is a possibility, but winning is a big ingredient in that recipe.

The second, and most logical option, to save the class of 2025 is through the transfer portal. My guess is that Bielema will secure a few more incoming freshmen and build the total to around 15 freshmen for the class of 2025. That means we are going to have around the No. 60 class in the country when it comes to the freshmen coming into the program.

What would save the class of 2025 is landing some solid transfer portal players. Illinois’ coaching staff has proven that they can go out and get quality talent in the transfer portal. Tommy DeVito came in and lit the world on fire at quarterback. John Paddock saved us in a couple of games last season at quarterback. Luke Altmyer is our starting quarterback this season. JC Davis should be a great player on the offensive line and one of the best offensive linemen in the Big Ten.

Illinois has been able to bring in some great transfer portal talent. That is the route that will save the class of 2025. We should look for early entrants into the transfer portal in the first month of the season. There are always some players who enter from other big programs. We can clean up and build out the roster in December and January. That is when the transfer portal heats up.

It is a dangerous game relying on the transfer portal, though. Illinois has had a nice balance of incoming freshmen and transfer portal players in the Bielema regime. That scale will likely tip for the class of 2025. Honestly, I think it has to tip. As of right now, the transfer portal is the only way I see the class of 2025 being salvaged.

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