In his new job as the head coach of Illinois football, Bret Bielema has brought quite a lot over from his days at Arkansas.
He’s brought in one player — former Arkansas tailback Chase Hayden, as a transfer. Hayden followed Alex Collins and Felix Jones as one of only three Arkansas true freshmen to rush for 100 yards or more in his Razorback debut.
Bielema has also hired at least three former Arkansas football players and GAs (see below).
He’s also brought to Illinois plenty of rose-colored optimism, just as he did when he arrived at Arkansas after three consecutive Rose Bowl appearances at Wisconsin.
Things didn’t go so well in that first Arkansas season with only three wins, but Bielema is more optimistic about how the 2021 season will play out for Illinois, a program that hasn’t had a winning season in a decade.
He came out of spring practice with several key senior returnees (e.g. linebacker Jake Hansen, offensive tackle Vederian Lowe and quaerback Brandon Peters) a stout, seasoned offensive line.
Best yet, he made sure everybody took note, not a single Illinois football player had decided to transfer coming out of the spring.
My, how the winds have changed.
Earlier this week, in the span of 24 hours, the below six Illinois football players announced that they would transfer out of the program:
OL Blaise Sparks
OL Brevyn Jones
DL Anthony Shipton
WR James Frenchie
DL Tre’von Riggins
RB/WR Kyron Cumby
Why an Illinois Football Player Exodus?
None of the players leaving were expected to play big minutes in 2021.
They played a total of 116 snaps last season and, as Illinois Inquirer’s Jeremy Werner sees it, that number probably would have gone down in 2021.
“This is a big money business and Bret Bielema, even though he’s in the honeymoon period, has pressure to win right away,” Werner said on the Illinois Inquirer podcast.
When players don’t fit a certain system or a certain coach, the coach usually is pretty honest about it – they tell them ‘Hey we don’t see a path forward for you.’”
That’s what likely happened with these six players.
“There were 19 offensive lineman during spring practice competing for practice match, let alone playing time,” Werner noted.
“So it was obvious that there was going to be some turnover in that room. So if you add Kevin Tyler and Pfeiffer Griffin, two red shirt freshmen, along with … Blaise Sparks and Brevyn Jones, it’s not a surprise that there’s a lot of turnover in that offensive line room, because there’s just not a lot of opportunity to play there.”
Bret Bielema wasn’t to get his own kind of linemen for a more power run attack.
“You’ll see more double teams instead of pulling all the time, which was the case with the past staff” under Lovie Smith, Werner said. “It’s get out and space. Can you move? This staff, they want guys who just get off the ball and really road grade people in front of them.”
In short, Bielema’s looking for the same kind of Hogs who did the damage for him at Arkansas — guys like Sebastian Tretola, Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper. We’ll see if he’s able to recruit and develop the same caliber of linemen without Sam Pittman, however.
The wideouts leaving likely weren’t a good schematic fit because of their small stature.
“They’re quick, they’re fast, but this is going to be a more physical offense,” Werner said.
“I think blocking is going to be more important, and they’re not going to have as many three receiver sets. They will run that, but it’s not going to be every down like it was with [former OC] Rod Smith for the most part.”
“So Tony Peterson is going to run double tight ends a lot. You’re going to see see two tight ends and maybe a full back in there at times. And he will run three wide receiver sets. But with Isaiah Williams moving into this slot, Donny Navarro in there.”
“You got some other wide receivers coming in. You move Marquez Beason to wide receiver. You’ve moved Jafar Armstrong there.”
This also frees up roster spots for Illinois to go after class of 2022 wide receiver recruits like Chas Nimard of Bentonville High School, who is also an Arkansas target.
Some level of attrition is inevitable with every coaching change, but it’s rare to see so many players leave at one time at any point — especially so long after spring practice wrapped (although at least one transfer was likely with a July 1 deadline to announce entering the transfer portal).
“I think the timing is really unfortunate for the players,” Werner said. “If this could have happened in May, it would have made a lot more sense for the players” and their ability to land a roster spot with a new team.
If Bret Bielema knew that some or all of these six players weren’t going to be a good fit going forward, why not have the conversation with them in May? That could have helped them more.
He should have had more time to resolve the issue, after all, since settling his lawsuit with Arkansas.
We don’t know the exact reasons behind these transfers, nor if Bielema was already having conversations with them previous to June.
Regardless of what happened, this suddenly announced group exodus isn’t a good look for the Illinois football program.
“I don’t think this is going to have a big impact, but it’s not the greatest PR that it all happens on the same day,” Werner added.
Hear his full Illinois football and Bret Bielema breakdown here:
Former Razorbacks on Illinois Football Team and Staff
Chase Hayden (running back)
2019 JUNIOR (Arkansas football)
- Played in four games and redshirted the season
- A paltry four receptions for 12 yards on the season
- Earned 79.5 in pass blocking on the season from Pro Football Focus
2018 SOPHOMORE (Arkansas football)
- Played in all 12 games
- Ranked third on the team in rushing (251 yards)
- 11 receptions for 61 yards on the season
- Recorded 55 yards on 11 carries at Colorado State 9/8/18
- Season-high 12 carries for 30 yards against Ole Miss 10/13/18
- Season-high 70 yards on five carries vs. Vanderbilt 10/27/18
- Season high five receptions for 17 yards vs. Vanderbilt 10/27/18
- Season-high 26 yards on two catches vs. Alabama 10/6/18
2017 FRESHMAN (Arkansas football)
- Played seven games
- 49 carries for 249 yards and three touchdowns on the season
- Averaged 5.3 yards per carry on the season
- 14 carries for 120 yards his collegiate debut against Florida A&M 8/31/17
- Earned SEC Freshman of the Week after game against Florida A&M 8/31/17
- His 120 rushing yards are the 14th most by a true freshman in Arkansas single-game history
- 77 rushing yards and one rushing touchdown on 13 carries vs. Texas A&M 9/23/17
- Two rushing touchdowns and 48 yards on 12 attempts vs. New Mexico 9/30/17
- Became the first Arkansas true freshman running back with multiple rushing touchdowns in a game since 2011
Tenarius Wright (Director of Football Strength and Conditioning)
Wright was the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at his alma mater Arkansas from 2014-17, where he worked on the Bret Bielema staff for the first time.
Tank Wright helped Arkansas produce one first-round pick, one second-round pick, two fourth-round picks, and nine picks from the fifth-seventh rounds.
Wright was a standout for the Razorbacks from 2008-12 as a linebacker/defensive end, posting nine quarterback sacks and 20 tackles for loss and serving as team captain as a senior in 2012.
He was named SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week after Arkansas’ 47-19 win over Texas A&M at Dallas’ Cowboys Stadium for his three tackles, two TFLs, one sack and two forced fumbles.
He was then signed as an undrafted free agent by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before trying out for the Kansas City Chiefs in a rookie mini-camp and spending time with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League. (via Fighting Illini communications)
Kevin Richardson (Graduate assistant coach on defense)
Richardson played for Bielema at Arkansas from 2013 through 2018.
He played in 48 games for Arkansas at defensive back, recording 125 tackles, four interceptions, eight pass breakups, and serving as a team captain in 2017.
The former walk-on’s biggest moments included a 22-yard fumble return for a touchdown against Ole Miss in 2017 with six minutes left in the fourth quarter to help Arkansas win 38-37, and interceptions against SEC standouts Jalen Hurts (Alabama) and Jarrett Stidham (Auburn).
Following his Arkansas football career, Kevin Richardson signed with the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats before beginning his coaching career.
Taylor Reed (Graduate assistant coach on defense)
Traylor Reed worked for Bret Bielema and the Arkansas football program from 2016-17, working primarily with the quarterbacks.
At Arkansas, Reed helped coach Austin Allen, the SEC’s top passer in 2016 who threw for 3,430 yards, including a league-best 2,291 in SEC play, and totaled 25 touchdown passes.
Reed joined the Razorbacks after lettering at Central Arkansas at quarterback from 2013-15, where he threw for 1,809 yards and 14 touchdowns in 23 games over three seasons.