Illini still 'not a finished product'

Illini still 'not a finished product'

CHAMPAIGN — The last 30 seasons of Illinois football have had pockets of quarterback stability where one quarterback led the team the entire year.

Jason Verduzco did it in the early 1990s. So did Kurt Kittner later in that same decade before ultimately guiding the Illini to a Sugar Bowl appearance. Juice Williams and Nathan Scheelhaase were both constants in the Illinois offense in the last decade and the start of this one.

But quarterback instability — either through injuries or ineffectiveness — has defined the Illini offense the past two seasons. Three quarterbacks ultimately played in 2016 after Wes Lunt was injured. Three also played last fall as the struggling Illini moved from Chayce Crouch to Jeff George Jr. to Cam Thomas in a 2-10 season.

When AJ Bush Jr. takes the field Saturday against Kent State, he will be the third different starting quarterback in the last three Illinois season openers. The last two seasons make Thomas staying ready a necessity if for no other reason than just in case.

"I'm definitely happy for AJ because I know he's been through a lot in his college career," Thomas said Tuesday. "I think it's good for him to get out there and finally get his chance. I'm definitely going to make sure I prepare as if I'm the starter, but he definitely has my support on the sideline as well. I want to see him do big things."

Rod Smith said Thomas, who made two starts and played in four games in 2017 as a true freshman, was supportive when he brought both quarterbacks into his office to discuss Bush as the starter. The first-year Illini offensive coordinator also said he feels comfortable with both Bush and Thomas and their moderately disparate strengths as quarterbacks running the offense.

"I think I have a couple good quarterbacks we can win with — I really do," Smith said. "I wouldn't say there's a gap as much as I think AJ played more consistent at times. Each of them has their own skill set. AJ is probably a bit more polished thrower, but can still run. Cam is probably deadlier with his feet, but he has to continue to develop as a passer."

Smith described the backup quarterback position as "always one play away." He wants all of his quarterbacks — true freshmen M.J. Rivers II, Matt Robinson and Coran Taylor included — to keep developing.

"We're not a finished product yet," Smith said. "We're getting ready to hit Week 1. Hopefully there will be progress throughout the season, and we won't stay the same the whole year."

Thomas said Illinois' quarterback competition in training camp helped him raise his level of play. He's reading defenses better than he was in the spring when he was the only scholarship quarterback on the roster, and he knows what Smith wants out of the offense.

That Thomas still has Smith's support also means a lot to the sophomore from Chicago Heights.

"It's a great confidence boost with me running the offense behind AJ," Thomas said. "I'm just going to come out here and do the best I can. Hopefully that pushes him to do the same."

Illinois' younger quarterbacks can also continue learning from Bush. Saturday might be his first start as a Division I quarterback, but the graduate transfer has four years of a college football career as valuable experience.

"All those guys get a chance to look at a fifth-year who's been through some hard times being all over and had to work hard to finally get a starting spot," redshirt senior offensive lineman Nick Allegretti said. "They see how hard it is. They see what it takes to be a starting quarterback — the vocal leadership role that you need to have — and I think that will help them a lot in the future.

"If you don't have that (vocal leadership), it's really hard. Quarterbacks can be lead-by-example guys, but they also have to be vocal."