Asmussen | Backup QBs come with some 'ifs'

Asmussen | Backup QBs come with some 'ifs'

The old saying goes: "Nobody is more popular than the backup quarterback."

To me, the quote doesn't quite hit the mark. You need some "ifs."

"Nobody is more popular than the backup quarterback if the starter stinks." Or "if the backup has a clue."

M.J. Rivers II had a clue in replacing an injured AJ Bush Jr. during Saturday's 34-14 Illini win against Western Illinois.

And in my 30 years covering Illinois, backup Illini quarterbacks have had different degrees of success. And failure.

The first one I saw, way back in 1989, was Jason Verduzco. Jeff George's backup that season entered the Ohio State game after George got injured. The undersized, under-recruited Verduzco, lit up the No. 18 Buckeyes, throwing for 172 yards and a touchdown. He was named ABC's co-player of the game.

Verduzco went on to become the No. 2 passer in school history.

In 1992, Verduzco was challenged for playing time by his backup Jeff Kinney. Making his first start against No. 20 Ohio State, Kinney led the Illini to an 18-16 victory. One more week with Kinney as the starter, then Verduzco was back in charge for the rest of the season.

From 1993-95, Johnny Johnson and Scott Weaver took turns as the backup. Despite not starting full time, Johnson remains among the school's top-10 career passers.

Worst of times

Sometimes going in as the backup quarterback turns into a heroic moment. Maybe the start of a monstrous career.

And other times, it's a trainwreck.

I wasn't here in 1982 when Illinois played Alabama in the Liberty Bowl. But I have heard the stories. In Bear Bryant's final game as coach, Alabama defeated Mike White's Illini 21-15.

The Illinois backup played a part. Kris Jenner went into the game three times for Tony Eason, who took hard shots from the Alabama defense. Each time, Jenner threw an interception.

Jenner apparently didn't let the rough night ruin his life. He went on to become a doctor and later a successful businessman.

Jenner's long night in Memphis was topped 14 years later by Mark Hoekstra's disaster in the desert.

In the third game of Lou Tepper's final season, the Illini trailed Arizona 13-0 in the third quarter. Starting quarterback Weaver suffered a bruised hip and Mark Hoekstra took his place.

Early on, Hoekstra was really good, completing passes for 22 and 35 yards to move the Illini deep into Arizona territory.

Arizona's David Fipp stopped the drive with a diving interception in the end zone. The Wildcats scored to make it 20-0.

Hoekstra kept throwing. Unfortunately, mostly to the guys in the other jerseys. Four more interceptions. Three returned for touchdowns.

Here's the small world part of the story: One of the pick sixes was an 86-yarder by Mikal Smith, Lovie's son

One of the classiest moves I have seen by an Illinois athlete came late that night. After what had to be the worst game of his life, Hoekstra stood in the end zone and answered question after question. For about 15 minutes. Unreal.

The good stuff

Not all Illinois backup stories end in ruin. Take Reilly O'Toole. The former News-Gazette All-State Player of the Year from Wheaton Warrenville South came to Champaign with the idea of being a starter.

But he got caught behind Nathan Scheelhaase and Wes Lunt.

Did he whine or threaten to leave? Of course not.

He got ready for when his number was called. His time came twice, first in 2012 when he subbed for Scheelhaase.

O'Toole got called again in 2014, when Lunt couldn't go.

Popular with his teammates and coaches, O'Toole made a smooth transition into the starting lineup.

The Illini won consecutive games at the end of the season against Penn State and Northwestern to earn a bowl bid. No doubt in my mind that it wouldn't have happened without O'Toole.

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at