The answer to the QB question ... coming soon
RANTOUL — Illinois opens the season two weeks from today against Youngstown State.
Wes Lunt, Reilly O’Toole or Aaron Bailey will start at quarterback.
Illinois coach Tim Beckman said Friday night the Illini should have a starter in place by no later than next Wednesday, but he didn’t indicate who it would be.
“Wednesday is our first day that’s really totally involved with Youngstown State,” Beckman said after the second Illini practice of the day Friday and ahead of tonight’s scrimmage at Memorial Stadium. “We’re going to take advantage of the time to make a great decision.”
Lunt has received the majority of reps with the starters as the week has progressed in Rantoul, making him the clear frontrunner to win the job.
O’Toole and Bailey have alternated snaps with the second-team offense. All three have played well at times this week, and all three have struggled at times, but Lunt should win the job when Illinois decides.
“We’re always telling them to throw the ball on time,” Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said. “It’s almost reverse where they’re throwing on time, and we’ve got to get the wideouts in sync. There have been a couple interceptions, but, really, the ball has been thrown to where the guy was supposed to be. I can’t allow those quarterbacks to hold the ball more, but we’re making some throws that are pretty special.”
Matt LaCosse is a confident man.
Must be the mustache the Illinois tight end unveiled this August.
“I don’t know if it makes me a better tight end, but I think it makes me a better person,” LaCosse said with a straight face. “It diversifies my portfolio and shows me that I have other options in my life.”
The senior made the above statement with a heavy dose of sarcasm. All business on the field, LaCosse isn’t afraid to joke around away from practice.
Or talk about his newfangled facial hair.
“Growing up, I never really had a lot of facial hair until about my sophomore year of college,” LaCosse said. “I started playing around with it a little bit and got a goatee going. People seemed to enjoy that. I just thought, ‘Hey, we’re coming to camp. There are no girls around. I might as well check out the mustache and see how it looks.’ Shaved off the goatee, and it was a fan favorite right away.”
His teammates may have rolled their eyes when they saw the new look LaCosse debuted this month. They may have to get used to it the rest of the fall.
“I was going to shave it at the end of camp, but now I’m leaning toward just keeping it the rest of the year,” LaCosse said. “We’ll see how Illini fans like it.”
They’ll like it much more if he continues the production and potential he showed last season. LaCosse only had four catches in his first two seasons before he burst onto the scene with 20 catches for 237 yards and three touchdowns last season.
“Just coming into camp knowing all the plays and all the details, I can spend more time getting my body right for the season,” LaCosse said. “There’s still a lot of mental stuff I have to get down, like different route techniques, but, overall, it’s amazing how much confidence we all have going through camp.”
He and fellow tight end Jon Davis should factor prominently into Cubit’s offense once again. Bring on the responsibility. And expectations.
“It brings a different element to our offense,” LaCosse said. “Usually when you see two tight ends go out on the field together, the other team brings in their heavy package, but we’re able to go spread. Coach Cubit always states you don’t want the defense to know what you’re doing. That just brings another aspect to the attack, and it helps us a lot.”
Depth issues at safety
Zane Petty and Taylor Barton have pretty much cinched the starting safety positions, with Petty at strong safety and Barton at free safety. A hamstring injury to Caleb Day has hindered the athletic defensive back the last two days and kept him from receiving reps there.
“We’ve got to find out who’s going to be with them,” defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. “To think you can go into a season with just two safeties is not real bright. We need to find out who the next couple guys are.”
Clayton Fejedelem and Jevaris Little have seen most of the snaps at the two safety positions, with Little at strong safety and Fejedelem at free safety.
“It’s a work in progress,” Banks said. “We feel like we have some kids that can step in and fill some gaps, but they’ve got to do that.”
Wideouts vying for time
Martize Barr, Geronimo Allison, Mike Dudek, Malik Turner and Justin Hardee have taken the majority of reps at wide receiver with the starters at Camp Rantoul.
But two other wideouts may make their way into the rotation this season, especially based on their play this week. Marchie Murdock, who redshirted last season, and Zach Grant, who sat out last season after transferring from Northern Illinois, have both made impressive catches on multiple days, including during Friday morning’s practice.
“Grant, to me, has probably made the biggest improvement out of anybody,” Cubit said. “Coming out of spring, I just didn’t think he’d be part of the rotation, but the kid has worked hard. He understands things that are going on now. Marchie had a good day (Friday). Now he’s got to put it back-to-back.”
Cubit is looking for one key element from the wideouts.
“In this whole thing, you’ve got to be consistent,” he said. “If you’re consistent and we know exactly what we’ve got, then we’ll be OK. The willingness is out there.”
How well Lunt, O’Toole and Bailey play in tonight’s scrimmage — closed to the media and public — will be a focal point Monday when Beckman meets with the media again.
The other scholarship quarterback on the roster, Chayce Crouch, likely won’t get many snaps with the offense tonight. The true freshman’s playing time in scrimmage-like settings during Camp Rantoul has diminished as the week has progressed.
“The problem now is the reps,” Cubit said. “He’s not getting that many reps, so he looks like a freshman, which he is. I told him to just take mental reps. The good thing is during meetings, he’s real attentive. He’s a smart kid.”
Ideally, the plan is to redshirt Crouch, who threw for more than 4,700 yards and rushed for more than 1,000 yards during his high school career at Newark Catholic High School in Newark, Ohio.
“Next year, then he’ll get some more reps because Reilly graduates,” Cubit said. “He’ll have that opportunity, which helps him out, and I still think he’s going to be a really good player.”