Tate | Transfer QBs searching for right fit at right time

Tate | Transfer QBs searching for right fit at right time

Why would Lovie Smith approve bringing in a transfer quarterback this summer when the Illini already had three quality freshmen on the way?

Answer: Because Lovie, riding a 10-game spiral, recognizes that freshmen are seldom ready at that position, and he needs to win football games NOW.

So here we are.

Southpaw AJ Bush, in his fourth stop since high school, has a leg up on sophomore Cam Thomas and the plebes as we near the Sept. 1 opener.

It's not unusual for transfers to win college QB jobs. In fact, it's routine. Like basketball, where annual transfers may someday reach 1,000, the QB business has no connection with school loyalty. The search for immediate gratification is more an epidemic than a trend.

Transfers galore

Look around. Michigan's uplifted aspirations hinge on Shea Patterson, once the great hope at Ole Miss ... while former Michigan starter Wilton Speight moved to UCLA. Oh, and by the way, Michigan has former Illini Jeff George, Jr., on its roster.

Indiana landed Arizona graduate Brandon Dawkins, who lost his job early last season to spectacular Khalil Tate. Now a Heisman candidate, Tate was tutored by new UI offensive coordinator Rod Smith.

At LSU, former Ohio State backup Joe Burrow is slated to replace 2017 standout Danny Etling, himself a onetime Purdue regular. And on Thursday, LSU reserves Lowell Narcisse and Justin McMillan announced they're leaving.

It's a free-for-all. Auburn's Jarrett Stidham moved from Baylor, and the Bears, in turn, picked up North Carolina State's Jalan McClendon. When Illinois faces South Florida in Chicago, Bush could find himself matching passes with Californian Blake Barnett, late of Alabama and Arizona State (though Barnett must climb the USF ladder).

Strong clubs at Washington, TCU, West Virginia and Tennessee are banking on QBs who didn't begin there, as will Kentucky, Oklahoma State, Memphis, Washington State, Charlotte and a host of others.

Why not? Didn't we just see Baker Mayfield win the Heisman Trophy after an original start at Texas Tech, followed by a walk-on at Oklahoma.

Start, sit or split

Here's the problem. Whereas other positions, particularly in the defensive line, rotate players during games, quarterbacks often play the distance. As No. 2 at Virginia Tech, Bush entered just five games last season ... briefly.

Bush said he was in a tight race with freshman Josh Jackson last August. Said Bush: "It went to the wire and he got the start."

And Jackson ran with it. Locked 24-24 with West Virginia, Jackson broke a 46-yard run to set up Tech's winning TD, finishing with 336 yards passing and rushing. Making a big rookie splash, he passed for 2,991 yards and 20 TDs, and ran for six.

Bush correctly figured that his only chance to play in his final season there would be if Jackson got hurt. And so ... along came Rod Smith, who sold Bush on his opportunity at Illinois.

Right fit?

Illinois, of course, is not new to transfers. The post-World War II era featured Perry Moss (Tulsa) and Tommy O'Connell (Notre Dame). The Mike White era kicked off with California JC transfers Dave Wilson and Tony Eason, and in 1988 coach John Mackovic inherited Jeff George from Purdue.

In this short century, Iowa's Jon Beutjer and Oklahoma State's Wes Lunt have led Illinois in passing three years each. If Bush does that in 2018, he'll be the 14th transfer to do so in 40 years.

Questions abound. After a vagabond life, did Bush land at the right place at the right time? Can he hold up physically in Rod Smith's misdirection ground game? Can he locate and hit Mike Dudek, Lou Dorsey and a crack corps of receivers? Is he good enough?

What we're watching is a landscape of QBs searching for the highest level that their talent allows. Some of them may not know what town they're in, but if they're in a stance behind the center, that's all that matters.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.

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