Skull Session: E.J. Liddell Isn't Transferring to Illinois, Matt Nagy Talks Justin Fields' Toughness, and Playoff Expansion is Inevitable

By Kevin Harrish on May 4, 2021 at 5:15 am
Ohio State's newest tight end is in today's skull session.

One day, I pray I earn an award as impressive as Kansas' spring game trophy.

Word of the Day: Tocsin.

 SORRY, ILLINI. Apparently, E.J. Liddell will not be transferring to Illinois.

If that sentence caught you completely off guard because you didn't even know that was ever even considered a possibility, I offer my sincerest congratulations on being a far more healthy level of online than I am.

The speculation began on Sunday when Loren Tate of The News-Gazette reported that Liddell and his family were "engaged in serious discussions" about transferring to Illinois.

It seems like a long shot, but OSU sophomore E.J. Liddell and his Belleville family have engaged in serious discussions about him transferring to Illinois. As an All-Big Ten first-team selection by the league’s coaches, he is also weighing professional possibilities while keeping the door open at OSU.

Liddell sees himself as a forward in the NBA, and wants to perfect perimeter skills after being outsized by centers like Cockburn, Iowa’s Luka Garza, Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson and others. It is not clear whether OSU’s acquisition of Indiana’s 6-11 Joey Brunk will affect Liddell’s decision.

But his father shot that down emphatically on Monday.

“No, he’s not going to Illinois,” Eric Liddell said Monday morning. “We haven’t talked to not one person from Illinois. That hasn’t even been in our household. We’re just testing the waters right now.”


He picked the Buckeyes after being a rare two-time Illinois Mr. Basketball winner from a list of finalists that was comprised of Illinois and Missouri. He was at the University of Illinois earlier this month, Liddell’s father said, because his best friend plays football for the Illini: Keith Randolph Jr., a classmate from Belleville West.

“E.J. had a hat on his head,” Eric Liddell said. “He had a hood over his hat. He has his mask on, trying for nobody to see him because he knew stuff like this was going to happen. No, nobody has talked to no Illinois about him transferring. Nowhere near that.”

On one hand, I believe the elder Liddell that there was never any serious consideration of a transfer. On the other hand, reports like that are usually based on at least a half-truth, and it doesn't seem like a coincidence that at his last press conference, Chris Holtmann was so emphatically declaring that Liddell would play forward and NOT center next season.

In any case, I'm sincerely glad this is untrue because this is the type of event that might cause me to jump off a pier with cement boots.

In other news, Ohio State center Ibrahima Diallo actually is in the transfer portal. Maybe Illinois can look to poach a different Buckeye.

 “HE JUST KEPT COMING BACK AND MAKING PLAYS.” Justin Fields plays football like it's a damn heavyweight boxing match – absorb a blow, compose yourself, punch back even harder.

It's all over his tape and it even happened against some of the most competitive opponents in the biggest games. And Bears coach Matt Nagy took notice.

“The one thing from afar I always noticed was how crazy tough this kid was with all the shots he kept taking,” Nagy told me over the phone Sunday night. “He just kept coming back in and making plays. And to have a guy that was such a dual threat, and yet he’s a competitor, he’s a leader, his teammates love him, he’s obsessed with the game—when you hear all that, how do you not get excited about it?”


And that those things were happening in high-leverage situations mattered to Nagy. In fact, one of the first exercises Nagy did with Fields, and the rest of the quarterbacks, was a simple one that even you or I could pull off: He looked at how many games like that each prospect had, and how many they won. Fields’s record showed that in 22 starts, he’d beaten eight ranked teams and didn’t stop swinging in the two games he lost either.

The toughness shined through in those spots, too, whether it was a shot to knee against Michigan his sophomore year, the infamous hit to his ribs against Clemson this year or how his next throw was for a touchdown after both of those collisions. Or how Ohio State wound up winning both of those games.

“One of the first things I like looking at is who’s your competition, who are you playing against?” Nagy said. “Who are you beating, and who are you losing to?”

The answer, in Fields’s case, was the best in the country on both counts.

For example, this happened about two plays after I thought he tore ligaments in his knee:

Hail to the Victors

And then he went ahead and had probably the best game of his life after taking a full-speed helmet to the ribs.

Dude's just built different.

 THE INEVITABLE. The College Football Playoff has been doing this dance where they try to convince everybody that expansion is not a guarantee and that the playoff very well could remain at four teams for the foreseeable future.

But regardless of what they say, all signs have been pointing towards expansion behind the scenes for well over two years.

“Don’t read too much into it. Four teams remains an option,” says Hancock, often seen as a spokesperson for the two playoff governing bodies: the Management Committee and, above it, the Board of Managers, made up of 10 school presidents from each of the 10 FBS conferences plus Notre Dame’s leader. “This is due diligence.”

While the skepticism is understandable, the real story might be that the CFP is closer to expanding than ever before. The group hasn’t reached this point “if there’s not some significant interest in expanding,” says one commissioner.

This could be a long, arduous process, and yet it’s a journey that began more than two years ago. They seem to be in the final stretch.

“We’re ready to report out to our colleagues, in the first instance to the other commissioners and presidents,” says Swarbrick, the Notre Dame athletic director who sits on the expansion working group.

Swarbrick declined all questions regarding the working groups models, but he seemed to suggest that the most difficult work—pouring over dozens of formats and hundreds of data points—is mostly over. After all, they’ve been at it in secret now for 27 months.

This is just like when the BCS insisted it was here to stay with no playoff on the horizon. It's coming; it's just a matter of when and what it's going to look like.

 TENNIS SCHOOL. Ohio State cleaned up the Big Ten tennis awards on the men's side, claiming the conference's player of the year and freshman of the year awards.

Now the women are getting in on the action, claiming the regular season and tournament titles, a unanimous All-Big Ten selection, the conference's sportsmanship award, and the Big Ten Coach of the Year Award for Melissa Schaub.

We're a tennis school now, and I ain't mad about it.

 SONG OF THE DAY. "I Think We're Alone Now" by Tiffany.

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