Exuberant and speedy, Bush brings hype to the Illini

Exuberant and speedy, Bush brings hype to the Illini

URBANA — Illinois’ offense, at least this latest version under new offensive coordinator Rod Smith, is at its best when the tempo is high. The quicker the better.

AJ Bush has run it best this month during training camp. The graduate transfer quarterback can make quick reads and deliver balls downfield with a quick release. Nothing there in the passing game? He can show off his quick feet.

Bush moves to celebrate big plays just as quickly. The sight of the 6-foot-4, 225-pound quarterback streaking downfield to celebrate with his wide receivers after a touchdown pass — yelling the entire way — has become a common one at the Campus Recreation Fields and inside Memorial Stadium.
Bush has brought tremendous energy to the Illini.

“A leadership type of swagger,” sophomore wide receiver Ricky Smalling called it. “That’s what we needed — a leader to help pick us up. We need excitement on the offensive side. When the defense gets an interception — they get a pick — they’re all having fun. I think he’s bringing that to the offense.”

Bush was a clear leader of the Illinois offense from day one of training camp. It wasn’t unexpected. He’s one of the few veterans — actual playing time aside — on the Illini roster. The young players, quarterbacks especially, looked to him.

How Bush has led, though, is just as important.

“AJ just brings a new flavor to the team,” redshirt sophomore wide receiver Dominic Stampley said. “He can sling it around. He’s hype. That’s my boy. He can make a lot of plays for us. He does a lot of the right things. He’s a great team player. He’s all about the team and all about trying to help the offense.”

Bush doesn’t know any other way to approach football than what he’s shown during the first two weeks of Illinois’ training camp.

It might be a new team, 100-plus new teammates and a new coaching staff, but he stepped in immediately and has been able to lead.

“It’s just my personality,” he said. “I’m used to being flexible. I’m used to change and used to meeting new people and adapting to new environments. With my journey, I don’t know a lot of people who had different personalities could do what I do and stay focused and stay hungry and strive to be the best person they could be.”

★ ★ ★

Bush’s path to Illinois took its twists and turns. He redshirted the 2014 season at Nebraska and spent the next year at No. 3 on the Cornhuskers’ depth chart with Tommy Armstrong Jr. firmly entrenched as the starter.

He left Lincoln, Neb., before the start of the 2016 season. Armstrong was a senior and unlikely to lose his spot.

Plus, Nebraska coach Mike Riley, who replaced Bo Pelini a year earlier, brought in Tulane transfer Tanner Lee as Armstrong’s probable replacement come the 2017 season (which ultimately happened).

“When the coaching change happened, chips fell another way,” Bush said. “I had to do what was best for me. I didn’t want to stay there another year. I transferred and went to JUCO and tried to get re-recruited because I didn’t have any film.”

Bush spent the 2016 season at Iowa Western Community College. He completed 52 of 114 passes for 602 yards and three touchdowns for the Reivers, while also rushing 95 times for 285 yards and five touchdowns.

“He goes to junior college and wasn’t really ready for junior college because he didn’t really want to leave Nebraska I don’t think,” Smith said. “His heart wasn’t in it. That’s why I think he was up and down there.”

Bush’s Iowa Western numbers might not have been eye popping, but they were enough to catch Justin Fuente’s attention at Virginia Tech. Bush enrolled early and found himself in a quarterback competition before the Hokies went with freshman Josh Jackson.

Frustration of missed opportunities not forgotten, Bush has one final shot at Illinois.

“It’s taught me so much,” he said about his well-traveled college career. “I’ve learned so many things from all four of the coaching staffs. One of the main things is me asking myself if this is what I really want. I’m the type I’ll never get up on what I really want to do. I just kept working and kept trying to find every opportunity to be that guy.”

★ ★ ★

Pursuing Bush as a graduate transfer was based more on a gut feeling than anything for Smith. Bush appeared in just five games at Virginia Tech in 2017 backing up Jackson. Eleven pass attempts and 19 rushes for the Hokies are the extent of his on-field Division I experience.

Smith remembered Bush from his days at Norcross  High School near Alpharetta, Ga.

Remembered his athleticism as a runner.

Remembered his skill throwing the ball.

Talking with the 22-year-old Bush during the recruiting process this spring sealed the deal.

“I was just thoroughly impressed with his approach to the game — how he handles himself and how football was super important to him,” Smith said. “That was big to me. When you play the quarterback position, you’re taking on the leadership of the team. You’ve got to have that mindset.”

So Smith played his hunch and brought Bush on board at Illinois — ostensibly with a March commitment even though he wouldn’t officially be added to the Illini roster until training camp opened.

“I just think he hadn’t had his right chance to shine yet,” Smith said. “I think the kid’s talented. I think the kid’s a major Division I football player. I just think it hadn’t been the right fit for him yet.”

Bush joined Illinois as one of four blueshirt recruits along with Stampley, kicker Caleb Griffin and linebacker Milo Eifler. That allowed the Illini to oversign in the 2018 class, but it meant none of them could participate in organized team activities.

Even so, Bush spent his summer in Champaign. He worked with Stampley, a Champaign native and Centennial grad, running routes. He also spent as much time with Smith as possible.

“I just wanted to meet with him every day and get as prepared as I could to come in and not have any slip-ups,” Bush said. “I was already behind. That’s not the case now. I’m very ahead of where I need to be, and that’s all due to the summer and due to Coach Rod as well. He basically was hand in hand with me getting me prepared. We both want to win. Why not go ahead and grind every day for it?”

Bush and Smith spent those summer days watching film together. Poring over the playbook.Spending time at the board charting plays. Bush’s commitment stood out to the first-year offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

“He spent all summer — on his own dime — up here studying our offense every day in the office with me he could,” Smith said. “He’s probably the one kid that showed up every day — came in to see me in the office. I’m not afraid to say that. He showed up every day. It just shows you how important it is to him. The kid’s committed. The kid knows what he wants. This is his last go around, and he’s putting in everything he’s got.

“He was told from the beginning there’s no guarantees. There’s no guarantees, but I’ll give you every shot and opportunity to do it. What you do with that opportunity is up to you. He’s making the most of it.”

Bush’s confidence never wavered as he bounced from school to school. Did he imagine playing for four teams in five years? No, but he feels like he’s better for the experiences and is in line to snag the No. 1 quarterback spot for the first time in his career with the Illini.

“I know how good I am,” Bush said. “I know what kind of player I am, what kind of leader and teammate I am. Why not be confident? When you’re prepared, you can be confident. A lot of people who aren’t prepared may fake it, but if you’re prepared you can act confident and be comfortable doing that.

“I pay attention to details. I took notes from every time I’ve not come out on top in a quarterback situation. Everything’s not in stone yet. I still have to keep grinding and still have to keep working. I feel good. That’s one thing I can say.”