It's easy to see why players would transfer en masse to FCS schools: after all, if football is your love and you want a degree, why wait a year to play by transferring to another FBS school when you could see the field right away somewhere else?
But something seems... fishy about Illinois State's roster. As has been well documented, they have 12 players - TWELVE - that transferred from FBS programs. Sure, they're good in the FCS, but they're not Appalachian State or New Hampshire, and yet, guys can't seem to stay away. These can't all be guys who just got fed up with playing time.
Last year, I figured something was fishy with Towson for having a huge proportion of FBS players on their roster, and sure enough, I found out that their defensive end Brady Smith was a big fan of rape during his time at Boston College, which is generally frowned upon. But unfortunately, teams don't try to advertise why players transferred there - they just mention that they did. So you have to dig deep.
So, after the jump, I turned the lens on Illinois State to see how they pan out.
No. 18, Bo Flowers, S (Illinois): Illinois wasn't Bo's first choice either - he was a fifth-round draft pick of the Detroit Tigers in 2002, but never advanced above A-ball and was in the independent leagues by 2006. He never started a game for the Illini, but as a 27-year-old senior. He isn't yet listed on ISU's two-deep because he isn't necessarily eligible to play there.
No. 93, Shelby Harris, DE (Wisconsin): Harris was a redshirt freshman, but in February, was suspended for a "team rules violation". As of August, Bret Bielema said he had certain things to complete if he wanted to return to the team, and his transfer to Illinois State became official a few days later. He will start for the Redbirds at defensive end. Precisely what caused Bielema to kick him off the team is still was never disclosed.
No. 32, Leonard Hubbard, MLB (Wisconsin): No weird situation here - just wanted playing time. He was a fourth-string redshirt freshman that had never seen any non-special teams playing time. Now he's a backup at ISU. Worth noting that this is not the same Leonard Hubbard who is/was a bassist for The Roots, but, you might have suspected that after the baseball thing.
No. 2, EJ Jones, CB (Minnesota): EJ's career was going fine under former Minnesota coach Glen Mason: as a running back, he was the only true freshman to start a game for Minnesota and was expected to play a prominent role in the Golden Gophers' running game. But one night, Jones and three of his teammates did something involving an incapacitated female student. Prosecutors insisted he, along with the three others, had sex with an 18-year-old student who was "physically helpless", Jones insists he never did. Only one of the four players - Dominic Jones was charged - but Tim Brewster decided that as an incoming coach, it would be wise to set a standard and dismiss all four. EJ spent 2007 as a non-athlete student at Minnesota in hopes of clearing his name and reputation and returning to the team, but Brewster advised him that it would be best for him to get a fresh start elsewhere. That year counted as a redshirt for Jones, and he transferred to ISU where he switched to cornerback. Now a senior, he will start at cornerback and backup as a kick returner for the second consecutive season.
No. 5, Ashton Leggett, RB (Michigan State): I was right with my first guess on why Leggett left Michigan State. He didn't need the playing time: as a sophomore last year, he earned a start against Western Michigan and responded by scoring four touchdowns. In case you hadn't figured it out, he was involved in the November incident where he and several other teammates beat students up in a campus dorm last night. He was dismissed from the team and in January, plead guilty to two counts of assault and battery, but having taken a plea deal, avoided jail time and further charges were dropped. After pleading guilty on January 15th, his transfer to Illinois State was finalized on the 19th. He played as a backup running back and ran for 56 yards last week.
No. 21, Otis Merrill, CB (Wisconsin): I guess Wisconsin guys just want playing time: in his first two years, Merrill's only playing time came late in the 2008 Champs Sports Bowl, so he headed to Normal for last year's season where he played every game and started four. He's not on the two-deep.
No. 98, Milton Owens, DT (Indiana): Owens was a walk-on at Indiana but has a full ride at Illinois State. The Redbirds also switched him from offensive line - where they had placed him prior to his final season there - to defensive line
No. 22, Marvon Sanders, WR (Eastern Michigan): Couldn't really crack the lineup at EMU - although he did have three catches against NU last year - and is a starter who had 114 yards receiving last week. Getting bored here.
No. 6, Erik Smith, RB (Wisconsin): Just wanted playing time after rarely playing last year, now starting for the Redbirds.
No. 79, Albert Sparks, DT (Buffalo) In April, the Buffalo depth chart came out and he wasn't on it, and the redshirt freshman just up and left. He made a bad choice, because he's not on the ISU two-deep.
No. 53, Xzavier Stewart, DT (Kansas State): Nearly every article about Xzavier is about how much trouble the 316-pound lineman had passing various conditioning tests, and he only played three games for Kansas State. Well, in August of 2009 - around the time he presumably would have had to pass similar conditioning tests - he decided to transfer to Illinois State and was a backup lineman for their 2009 season. I don't have any idea if the conditioning thing eventually led to his departure from K-State - it's just an insinuation having seen no articles about his actual play, just about his repeated failure to be in shape. The senior also has a great name.
No. 25, Andre Tate, RB (Minnesota): Never played a collegiate game due to a variety of injuries, redshirts, and the fact that last year he was academically ineligible. He still isn't on the ISU roster - I'd have to assume he's still having academic eligibility issues or he's been kicked off the team.
Legal issues: Two (Jones, Leggett)
Undisclosed dismissals: One (Harris)
Playing Time: Seven (although two of them - Flowers and Stewart - seem to have weird issues of their own with various eligibility/conditioning problems)
Eligibility issues: One (Tate)
Wanted actual scholarships: Two (Owens, Rebholz)
Conclusion: ISU, for the most part, is pretty clean. For the most part, their roster is just filled with guys who wanted playing time and/or a real scholly. And of those 13 players, they haven't even made a big dent into ISU's team: after all, only four are starters. And most of them don't even play on a regular basis.
But of the three who didn't come to ISU because they wanted playing time, but rather were forced out of their previous program - Jones, Leggett, and Harris - none of them are having trouble with PT. Jones - the rape suspect - is a starting corner, Harris - who was kicked off Wisconsin for undisclosed reasons - is a starting defensive end, and Leggett - the puncher - splits carries at running back and got the game-winning two point conversion in their first game of the season.
So basically, if you switched to ISU because you wanted playing time... well, you're still not quite good enough to get playing time. If you were forced out, you were probably pretty good at your last school and earned a major role at ISU.
Now, I'm not one to judge. I think everybody - especially young guys who made silly mistakes - deserves a second chance, and even if I didn't always believe that, I'd believe it now, after just getting home from Rosh Hashanah services, where you're told that everybody can one day return to the flock if they so choose. But as an Northwestern fan, we're used to seeing a coaching staff intent on strict discipline. We kicked a guy off the team for owning an airgun, for chrissake. And we hope that discipline rubs off on the playing field.
Its interesting to note how other schools see different opportunities. ISU saw the potential to have three good players - players with troubled pasts - fall into their lap. And they took them. And sure enough, after a 6-5 season last year, people around college football thought well enough of them to put them in the FCS preseason poll.
Now, 13 D-I caliber players - even if all of them played - probably wouldn't help ISU this weekend beating NU. (Probably.) But they'll probably have a very successful year on their level. And the four starters they got from FBS rosters will probably have a lot to do with that, and their willingness to take in guys will probably make them appealing to other FBS transfers in the future.