CHAMPAIGN — Aaron Bailey became a Twitter sensation.
In a few hours.
The Bolingbrook product and highest- ranked recruit in Tim Beckman’s Class of 2013 picked up a few thousand followers. All during the span of one day in late July.
Except the account, @ABailey_15, was fake.
“He got like 5,000 followers in 20 minutes,” Illinois left tackle Simon Cvijanovic said with a laugh. “It’s a testament to what kind of player he was in high school and how well-known he was. I have 400 followers, and I’ve had Twitter for a year and a half.”
The quarterback said in late May he wasn’t into the social media scene. He’s not a fan of Twitter or Facebook. A text message, phone call or email is just fine with him. So it’s not too much of a surprise the Twitter account wasn’t legitimate.
“That was something we laughed about because there’s some guys on the team that get very jealous of people like Aaron,” wide receiver Steve Hull said. “There are guys that play significantly now that only have a couple hundred, so they get pretty worked up about it, but it’s all in fun.”
For now, his teammates, coaches and anyone else Bailey is close with will have to speak for him. At least to the media.
Beckman, like most FBS coaches, has a team policy in which freshmen aren’t allowed to talk to the press until the start of Big Ten play. And then it’s up to Beckman’s discretion. When asked if Bailey could be available for comment for this story, Beckman held firm on his stance.
“It’s something that I think they need to get used to the fact of how to deal with it,” Beckman said. “I think it’s a privilege for them to be able to do it, too. Really, we just want to make sure they understand what it’s like before they jump right into it.”
Fair enough. The first Bailey interview at Illinois might come about the same time Bailey throws his first pass at Illinois. His time on the field, which should continue against Miami (Ohio) today, with Illinois has been brief. But productive.
Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit has trotted Bailey out for seven plays this season. Five of them have either resulted in first downs or touchdowns. He is tied for the team lead in rushing touchdowns (two), and his most prolific run is his 10-yard touchdown run against Washington two weeks ago that cut Illinois’ deficit to 31-24 in the fourth quarter and energized the Soldier Field crowd.
Including a large contingent of family who made the short drive from Bolingbrook to Chicago.
“He was happy because it was a momentum swing at that point when he scored,” said Oliver “O” Carter, Bailey’s stepfather. “He loved it.”
Just like seeing both his parents, his grandmother, two aunts, two uncles, four cousins and a host of friends attend the game.
Carter said when his stepson enters an Illinois game, his cellphone starts lighting up. Almost as quick as Bailey hit the hole for his touchdown against Washington.
“Every time Aaron is in, I get texts from guys at work or in the neighborhood or other players who played with Aaron at Bolingbrook,” Carter said. “It’s exciting.”
Cubit said he meets with Bailey every Sunday to discuss how he wants to implement the dual-threat talent into that week’s game plan.
“There’s a little bit more of an air of confidence to him,” Cubit said. “I don’t want to say he’s a shy guy, but he was probably a little overwhelmed, as most freshmen would be, especially in this offense where you have to do so much. It’s kind of funny because what you see on Saturday is sometimes not what you’re seeing Monday through Thursday. You’ve got to give him what he can do and just keep on building on it.”
Cubit didn’t indicate when Bailey might throw the ball for the first time. His teammates aren’t tipping their hand, either.
Carter is eager to see his stepson get the chance, albeit praying his first college pass does not result in an interception. Beckman came out the first day of Illinois practice in early August and praised Bailey’s arm strength, which was questioned by some during his time at Bolingbrook.
But Tim O’Halloran, commonly referred to as Edgy Tim and one of the state’s most-respected sources when it comes to high school football and recruiting, has seen Bailey showcase his arm.
“It was undervalued from the moment he hit the recruiting radars,” O’Halloran said. “The fact that he ran a belly-option offense at Bolingbrook didn’t help. I had a chance to watch him for two or three summers in 7-on-7s. Granted, it’s kids in their underwear playing catch, but he showed the mechanics, the touch and the arm strength you see from other top quarterbacks. He didn’t get to do it 50 times a game in high school, but it’s certainly a part of his game that I hope he’ll eventually get a chance to show.”
Before he even put on an Illinois uniform, Bailey had the attention of the upperclassmen at Illinois. Like the man he hopes to replace one day at quarterback — although Wes Lunt might have something to say about that — in Nathan Scheelhaase.
“I can remember in the summer we were doing a medicine ball throw, which has some complicated technique to it,” Scheelhaase said. “It’s something we do all year. Freshmen don’t really focus on it. He got moved up to one of the lifts with us, did it, and I think threw the ball 4 feet further than everyone else. Just his raw athletic ability is something that’s eye-opening right at the start.”
Along with his humble, mature approach, not often seen in 18-year-olds. Defensive players notice it, too.
“He’s very athletic, but probably just the way he carries himself is probably the most impressive thing to me,” Illinois linebacker Jonathan Brown said. “He doesn’t carry himself like a freshman.”
Mike Ward noticed it, too. The Illinois inside linebackers coach played a role in Bailey’s recruitment because Bolingbrook is his primary school. Former co-offensive coordinator Chris Beatty and Beckman were heavily involved in getting a commitment from Bailey almost 18 months ago.
“We wanted to make sure that we got the head coach in the school as early as possible and the offensive coordinator as well to make sure that he understood that he was going to play quarterback,” Ward said. “All the rumors were that he’s an athlete and everybody wants to move him. We wanted to make sure that he knew he was being recruited to come here to play quarterback.”
He is. Just without a passing attempt or completion to his name yet. Wide receiver Ryan Lankford might catch that first pass. And Lankford — who Scheelhaase said hands out the best nicknames on the team — might have finally found a moniker for the Illinois offense when Bailey is in the game.
“I personally just call him AB,” Lankford said, “so I guess we can call it the AB package.”
Aaron Bailey isn’t among the top true freshmen in the Big Ten. Yet. Beat writer MATT DANIELS looks at three promising freshmen in Jim Delany’s conference and three other youngsters Tim Beckman is hyped about:
1. Christian Hackenberg, Penn State. The quarterback will need to cut down on his interceptions (four), but he has the second-most passing yards (1,027) in the league. Seems suited to thrive in Bill O’Brien’s offense.
2. Corey Clement, Wisconsin. Surprise, surprise. The Badgers have another stud running back. The Glassboro, N.J., native has 334 rushing yards. That’s only third on the team, but it would lead six other Big Ten teams.
3. Marcus Oliver, Indiana. The Hoosiers’ defense has caused consternation for its faithful. But the linebacker has forced two fumbles, tied for tops in the Big Ten, and has made 10 tackles through three games.
1. Aaron Bailey. The quarterback has just tapped the surface of what he could do in Champaign. The next step? Have him unleash a few throws during a game to possibly catch the defense off guard.
2. Jaylen Dunlap. Beckman has had high praise for the cornerback from Crete-Monee, who has four tackles, has played in all three games so far and came up with a well-timed pass breakup in the end zone against Washington.
3. Darius Mosely. One of the standouts of the spring game, cornerback from O’Fallon has played in every game and made six tackles while usually sharing time on the field with Dunlap.