Inside look at what the Illini want in a starting QB

Inside look at what the Illini want in a starting QB

CHAMPAIGN — A ghost of a smile.

That's what accompanied Rod Smith's telling of his conversation with Illinois football coach Lovie Smith about the nature of the Illini's open training camp.

Fans lined the fences at the Campus Rec Fields on Friday afternoon for day one. They were back — in greater numbers — Saturday morning for another look. They'll have 12 more opportunities to do the same starting again at 9 a.m. Monday.

"I asked Lovie, 'Are you sure want to open this?'" Rod Smith said — maybe only half joking. "I'm not used to that. It was great to see fans here, but it's different for me to display your stuff out there. We didn't do a whole lot. It was very base, very vanilla."

An open quarterback competition has and will continue to draw a lot of eyes during an open training camp. Rod Smith won't put all his cards on the table as the Illini prepare for their Sept. 1 season opener against Kent State, but his quarterback competition will play out in front of a captive audience.

Plenty of full-team work consolidated the players — and the fans' attention — to one field Friday and Saturday. All eyes centered on AJ Bush, Cam Thomas, Coran Taylor, MJ Rivers II, Matt Robinson, Cam Miller and Drake Davis.

"When you have that many, they need to do things to get an opportunity to get in team situations," Lovie Smith said. "Once they get in a team situation, we'll let the guys play. Keep rolling who plays with what group — who plays with the starting offensive line and those things.

"What I've found is when you let guys play, they kind of tell you how the depth chart should play out. That will be the case here."

'We want to get reps in'

Rod Smith's priorities were clear with the first drill he ran with his quarterbacks Friday after the team went through its pre-practice warmups. Half of the quarterbacks had the ball in their hands for a short rush. Each wore a teammate like a cape, as the other quarterbacks tried to poke the ball away from the ballcarrier.

Another similar drill immediately followed, with each quarterback carrying two balls through a gauntlet of their teammates — and Rod Smith — trying to make holding on to it a chore.

The drills served two purposes. One, Illinois' quarterbacks are going to be expected to help their own cause by running the football. Two, they better hold on to the ball in the process.

"He's definitely stressing ball security," Thomas said. "The football is the program. As long as we don't turn the ball over, then we're going to have the best opportunity to win games."

Pace — or not enough of it — defined Illinois' first two days of training camp. Everything the Illini quarterbacks did, Rod Smith wanted them to do faster. Part of it is the tempo he wants the Illinois offense to run come gameday. The other is the finite number of reps he has to split between all seven quarterbacks in a two-hour practice at this point of camp.

"We want to get reps in," Rod Smith said. "We want to understand the tempo at which we play. We'll get there. You typically don't do that day one anyway. It's rough. It's a grind. Our guys are trying to fight through it. They'll get better and we'll get more tempo as we go."

Nothing exemplified the type of tempo Rod Smith wanted more than a drill the Illini quarterbacks ran in the second hour of Friday's opening day of camp. Each quarterback had to make six throws — from one side of the field to the other — with each new snap coming as soon as a pass left their hand.

Like almost all aspects Friday, the Illini offensive coordinator wanted them to play with more pace.

Quick release.

Pivot.

Quick release again.

The next drill dictated the other side of the tempo coin. Rod Smith might want his quarterbacks to play an uptempo style, but he wants them accurate while doing it. All seven went through a smooth, three-step drop before trying to hit specific targets — on the numbers, inside shoulder, outside shoulder — Rod Smith called out.

"Although he's stressing tempo, he's also stressing slowing down your heart rate — just being more smooth and being able to just relax although you're going fast," Bush said. "That comes with preparation. It's a rhythm process. It's a checklist you've got to do in a very short amount of time. The more you do it, the easier it will be."

'You can never be content'

The first two days of training camp delineated a hierarchy in Illinois' quarterback competition. Bush and Thomas received the most reps — and most often with the first-team offense. Taylor and Miller were next, with Rivers, Robinson and Davis following.

It's a world apart from spring. Thomas was the only scholarship quarterback on campus, and he received copious amounts of one-on-one time with his new offensive coordinator. That meant more reps and more time learning the playbook.

"You can't spend all your time with one guy or two guys," Rod Smith said. "You've got to divy it up. It's stressful, but at the same time I've done it before.

"We'll be able to see who's more game ready — or who's closer to being game ready than the others — throughout the course of practice. As camp goes on, we'll start whittling it down to where we'll rep our top three guys at some point in time. When will that be? I don't know. It might not be until game week, but we'll see."

Consistency is at the top of Rod Smith's wish list in Illinois' quarterback competition. He gives it a broad definition — the right reads, right decisions and delivering the ball to the right spot at the right time.

"We're making great decisions and we're accurate with the football — the two most important things we can do as a quarterback," Rod Smith said about his primary focus. "After that, it's all the skill set that comes with it. Can he run? What does he do well? We've got to tailor what we do around the quarterback to help him and make sure we maximize his skill set."

Illinois' quarterbacks delivered that type of consistency at times the first two days of camp. Both Bush and Thomas said more work has to follow, though.

"You can never get too high and never get too low," Bush said. "If you have a good day, you can never be content. That's when you lose. You've got to be able to be consistent every day. If I feel like I have a good day today, I've got to have a better day tomorrow."

'You're going to earn your stripes'

Illinois' quarterback competition is just that — a true competition. Thomas returns after playing in four games and making two starts for the Illini in 2017. Bush attempted just 19 passes in five games last season at Virginia Tech.

"I think that just makes everybody play to their top potential," said Thomas, who added he's trying to show he can be a leader. "It's going to increase the competitiveness as a whole in the room. I believe everybody is going to step up and try to be that guy.

"I know that every time I get on the field I've got to make the most of my opportunities. Everybody else in the quarterback room is going to do the same."

Bush flashed his leadership capabilities, too. On his fourth team in five seasons, he's the veteran in the quarterback room. Teaching is something he said he feels he has to do.

Rod Smith said Bush's experience will only help Thomas and the newest quarterbacks on the Illini roster who were, not unexpectedly, "a little wide-eyed" the first day of camp.

"It takes some maturity," Rod Smith said about what he was looking for in a No. 1 quarterback. "We want our quarterbacks to be a leader — not just of the offense. We want to make sure those guys are leading our team. You know how it is. Most times you end up being the face of the program. We've got to make sure we're leading on the field, off the field and doing all the right things."

Experience level, though, won't necessarily put one quarterback ahead of another. At least at this stage of camp.

"I told Cam. I told AJ. I told every single one them," Rod Smith said. "I don't want any of them thinking, 'I'm the guy. I'm comfortable. This is a country club. I'll go out and take my (No. 1) reps.' That ain't how we operate.

"Every day you're going to earn your stripes. If someone outplays you, we'll move them around and do different things to create competition in that room. To me, that's just going to make us better. You're not looking over your shoulder, but you know you better bring your 'A' game every time you step out here."