CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Sometimes the most logical fix is also the easiest.
Lovie Smith wanted, and very much knew that this 2019 season to include more wins for the Illinois football program. So, what did the fourth-year head coach do? Brought in players who had won a lot of college football games. Again, sometimes things make sense for a simple reason.
Smith and his Illinois coaching staff can arguably be the poster boy product for using the NCAA’s new transfer portal to bring in not only an influx of talent but also a culture change to what had been a chaotic losing tradition.
“What I would say that about the culture of Illinois football is it starts with the guys in that locker room, my buddies on this team, believing that every time we step on the football field, we’re going to win,” Illinois offensive lineman Richie Petitbon, who is a graduate transfer from Alabama. “Not that we can win or we might win. No, every time we step on the field, we’re going to win. That’s what I’ve learned starting fast and finishing strong means to me.”
The Illini (4-4, 2-3 in Big Ten) added seven new transfers from the Power 5 Conferences with six playing immediately in 2019 as graduate transfers. Six of those graduate transfers (Michigan quarterback Brandon Peters, Southern California wide receivers Josh Imatorbhebhe and Trevon Sidney, Petitbon, Southern California defensive end Oluwole Betiku Jr. and Washington linebacker Milo Eifler have made a huge impact this season.
ILLINI 2019 GRAD TRANSFER STATISTICS
- QB Brandon Peters – 997 passing yards, 12 TD passes, 3 rushing TDs
- DL Oluwole Betiku Jr. – 29 tackles, 11.5 TFLs, 8.0 sacks, 6 QB hurries, 2 fumble recoveries
- WR Josh Imatorbhebhe – 22 catches, 364 yards, 6 touchdowns
- LB Milo Eifler – 37 tackles, 4.5 TFLs, 1 FR, 1 PBU, 1 TD
- WR Trevon Sidney – 16 catches, 123 yards, 1 touchdown (out for season after 5 games)
- OL Richie Petitbon – 8 starts at guard
The Illini will try this weekend vs. Rutgers (2:30 p.m., BTN) to get one win away from bowl eligibility and at the .500 mark in Big Ten Conference play for the first time since 2015. As the Illini enjoy the glow of a two-game winning streak, the impact of college football’s version of the free agent waiver wire certainly hasn’t been lost on Illinois’ opponents this season.
“This (Illinois) team is vastly improved from previous years,” Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm said six days before his Boilermakers lost 24-6 at home to Illinois. “I think they’ve done a great job with the youth they’ve played with in the past and went a different route and added a bunch of transfers. The leader in sacks, one of their best linebackers, starting quarterback, leading receiver and a starting offensive lineman are all grad transfers. They’ve added some experience with their youth and they’re a better football team.”
These six graduate transfer starters accumulated 127 wins, five conference championships, three College Football Playoff appearances, three New Year’s Six bowl games and a January 1st bowl game in their tenure with their first school.
“I think a lot of it is about starting fast and finishing as the strongest team on the field,” Eifler said. “That’s not just a saying or talk. Look at the teams that win. They start on time and they’re mentally and physically prepared in the fourth quarter. We have to do that here. We’re no different than those teams that win a lot of games.”
Before these six graduate transfer starters stepped on Illinois’ campus in the Champaign-Urbana area, these players knew what it took to build and maintain a consistent winning Power 5 Conference program. And it’s not done by coincidence or luck.
“I was just talking to (Petitbon) about this but he says all the time that ‘we knew we were going to win when we stepped on the field’ and they knew it before they got on the field on Saturday. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Imatorbhebhe said.
Petitbon, whose grandfather was a four-time NFL Pro Bowl safety, didn’t know what it meant to not make the College Football Playoff in his three active years with Alabama. The starting right guard winning presence is valuable in the meeting rooms and practice field for an Illini program trying to qualify for its first bowl bid since 2014.
Forget being new faces and trying to quietly implement themselves into the locker room culture, these graduate transfers wanted to be front and center. Even when the program was in the midst of a four-game losing streak and seemingly on the brink of a critical turning point, it was these graduate transfers who knew they had to speak up about the culture of this Illini program.
“When you’re a team that hasn’t won a lot historically, you have to do everything you can to build confidence throughout a game,” Imatorbhebhe said. “When the momentum starts, that’s when the belief comes.”
Imatorbhebhe then backed up his words with action. With Illinois down nine to then-No. 6 Wisconsin, the 6-foot-2 receiver caught a 28-yard touchdown pass with five minutes and 53 seconds left to help the momentum in the Illini’s comeback victory. The Southern Cal transfer, who had seen a Pac 12 Conference championship, physically broke through that barrier he’d spoken about when he caught that touchdown toss from Peters.
“See, I’ve been talking about how this team needed to overcome an amount of inertia and (the win over Wisconsin) was it right there,” Imatorbhebhe said. “Belief just came as a result. Then we were able to finish the game so that play was huge.”