Asmussen | It's Cam Thomas' team ... for now

Asmussen | It's Cam Thomas' team ... for now

The Illinois football team now belongs to Cam Thomas. For at least the next five months.

The grizzled veterans are gone. Chayce Crouch is now in pharmaceutical sales. And Jeff George Jr. is transferring to another school.

The Illinois quarterback room is down to sophomore-to-be Thomas and walk-ons Cam Miller and Charlie Reinkemeyer.

In the summer, they will be joined by freshmen M.J. Rivers, Matt Robinson and Coran Taylor.

At the crack of near-dawn Tuesday, Thomas had his first official practice as the new guy in charge.

Under offensive coordinator Rod Smith's direction, Thomas took the first few steps as he tries to learn the Illinois offense.

There will be growing pains. There always are. Smith has coached a string of successful quarterbacks on his way to C-U. Thomas has a chance to be next. But there are no guarantees.

The offense has to improve if Illinois wants to win more than two games.

Statistically, the Illini were among the worst in the country last season. But as far as Smith is concerned the 2017 season is in the past. Thomas is not being judged for what he did. It is his work today that matters.

Hitting it off

Smith made a good early impression on Thomas. With food.

"He's real cool," Thomas said. "He got us bowling alley pizza. It was great."

Thomas faces several challenges. Before any other scholarship quarterbacks arrive.

He's got to show that he understands the system. And he needs to lead.

"I'm definitely trying to step into the leadership role," Thomas said. "Being a younger guy, sometimes it's hard."

Thomas played in four games as a true freshman, completing 42 percent of his passes for 375 yards. He threw five interceptions and no touchdown passes. As a runner, he gained 233 yards and scored a TD.

The experience helps. Even if it was in a different offense.

"Getting in a college game is different from practicing or watching it on TV," Thomas said.

He entered training camp last summer as a long shot to get on the field. All he wanted was a chance. Same as today.

"Show the team I have what it takes to be the starter," Thomas said.

Smith wants his quarterback to function like a point guard in basketball. Distribute. Put the ball in the hands of the playmakers. Team over self.

Good start

Smith was happy to finally get back on the field. The former Arizona assistant coach is away from mentor Rich Rodriguez for the first time in years.

The self-described "polar bear" wore shorts on a 30-degree morning.

Smith and Thomas will spend the spring getting to know each other.

"It's huge," Smith said. "Every rep he takes is going to be invaluable. There's a huge learning curve that is going to take place, as well as some fundamental things we are trying to get done with Cam."

So far, so good. With room to improve.

"I thought he did a decent job for Day 1," Smith said. "There are some things we've got to get cleaned up, but he's working at it."

Thomas is learning new terminology.

"It's like speaking a new language," Smith said. "It's like speaking Chinese if you're an American."

The pace is faster than what the Illini are used to. The players will have to think on their feet. Not a lot of time to process. Thomas came prepared.

"He did a couple things (Tuesday) mentally that were pretty good that I wouldn't have expected him to do," Smith said. "That's a positive.

But ... there were too many missed throws. Especially when working against a phantom defense.

"We should never miss a throw on air," Smith said. "There should be no balls on the ground. Way too many balls on the ground. That's not all just Cam. It's quarterbacks and wideouts."

It's easy to forget that Thomas hasn't been here very long. A year ago at this time, he was still in high school. Now, he is the early favorite to be the starting quarterback at a Big Ten school.

He is making adjustments on the field, in class and in life.

"College is starting to slow down," Thomas said. "Everything's starting to fall in place."

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

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Moonpie wrote on March 07, 2018 at 11:03 am

Quarterback is arguably the most importat position and all the Illini have there is some inexperienced young kid and a bunch of nobodies. Good luck with that. Likely another dreadful season coming.

Maybe the Illini will be interested in yet another failed former Bears coach to take over.