“We Have To Get It Done That Way”: Lovie Smith Admits Transfers Will Have To Sign Without Visits

Matthew Stevens

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- The coronavirus world health epidemic and in-state quarantine mandate has forced Lovie Smith to quickly learn, accept, adapt and love video conferencing.

The Illini head football coach said in a media teleconference Friday morning that he uses eight weekly hours (two hours daily) of video teleconferencing meetings with his staff and current players. However, a large portion of that eight hours is also dedicated to recruiting and specifically using video chat to contact and stay connected with eligible players currently in the transfer portal.

Smith acknowledged Friday that the halting of on-campus and off-campus recruiting in March has had an impact on his football program that has prioritized the transfer market as much and possibly more so than a majority of Power 5 Conference schools.

“We’re going to have to see how it goes on the other end and who will be available,” Smith said. “We do still believe in the graduate transfer market is what I’m going to say...and eventually we’re going to start up football again and there will be guys available then. We’ll just push things back until the lights come on.”

Smith said he’s able to directly connect with players in the transfer market, current signees and high school targets via Zoom video conferencing. The Illini staff have been able to send out video packages detailing campus looks, academic benefits and other hallmarks of the university in the hope of enticing some transfers to sign when the nationwide suspension on National Letter-of-Intent documents is withdrawn on April 15. And Smith said this won’t be a hope for Illinois, which is has held back several scholarships from the FBS level of 85 for the sole purpose of having room for transfers, but a necessity.

“We have to have it and we have to get it done that way,” Smith said of convincing transfers to come to Illinois via online video conferencing. “And I think we will get it done that way. Again, you’re thrown curveballs daily and you adjust from there. We’ll make our recruiting work still.”

Illinois received a verbal commitment on March 10 from graduate transfer pass rusher Christian Bell from Wisconsin. Bell, a 6-foot-4 and 249-pound defensive lineman/linebacker hybrid, appeared in seven games recording four tackles, three solo tackles and one sack. If Bell didn’t sign a scholarship paperwork or a NLI before March 16, he’ll still need to do so when the NCAA again allows for documentation to be sent out to prospects.

Bell will be expected to take an open defensive line pass rusher spot left by the departures of Oluwole Betiku Jr. and Ayo Shogbonyo.

“With our recruiting plan we had in place, none of that has changed except we can’t see guys, we can’t get them on campus so we have to find other ways to show them the University of Illinois, our campus, our coaches and everything about our program,” Smith said. “We have a recruiting meeting five days a week.”

Smith did say that even if the doomsday scenario were to exist and Illinois couldn’t attract any further signees in the graduate transfer market, the Illini head coach enters his fifth season in Champaign with confidence in the current roster that will have as many as 15 returning starters from last year’s team that qualified for a bowl game for the first time since 2014.

“Even without adding anyone (before the start of this upcoming season), we have confidence in this football team,” Smith said. “We talk a lot about the graduate transfers who are coming but I’m basing our optimism on what we have right now.”