Illini OC: Bush 'the guy' if he is healthy

Illini OC: Bush 'the guy' if he is healthy

CHAMPAIGN — AJ Bush Jr. wanted to play in the second half of Illinois' 34-14 win against Western Illinois. He made that clear by the number of times he asked a coach on the sideline to tell offensive coordinator Rod Smith he wanted back in the game.

Bush's hamstring injury, though, kept him off the field the final three quarters against the Leathernecks. It also created the question — at least as of Monday afternoon — of whether he'll play Saturday in Chicago when the Illini (2-0) face South Florida (2-0) at 2:30 p.m. at Soldier Field.

"We'll see how it goes with him this week," Illinois coach Lovie Smith said about Bush. "We have to get to the practice field and kind of see a little bit. AJ will tell you it's not as bad, but whenever you can't finish a game, though, there's concern. He's making a lot of progress."

What isn't in question is Bush's role if he is healthy. Rod Smith made that clear even after true freshman M.J. Rivers II showed he could run the offense effectively when he made his Illini debut and led his own come-from-behind victory.

"If he's ready to go then, obviously, he's the guy," Rod Smith said. "We have to wait and see how he responds and if he's 100 percent. AJ will tell you he could have played. We just wanted to make sure. He was limping pretty good, and I'd rather have someone full speed than half speed out there — particularly for what we do offensively.

"I'm not a doctor and don't claim to be. (The athletic trainers have) to give us clearance before we'd ever put him back in. There's got to be certain protocols, certain levels, to ensure the kid's safety."

Rivers gives Illinois a viable option, though, if Bush is unable to play against South Florida. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound Texan led the Illini on five scoring drives against the Leathernecks, including a pair of touchdowns to fellow freshman Edwin Carter, who Lovie Smith said is out for the season Monday with a significant knee injury he sustained making his second touchdown catch against Western Illinois.

"M.J. can throw the football pretty well," Rod Smith said. "He's got to calm down his feet some in the pocket. He's got to learn to trust protection a little bit better at times and learn to get rid of the football quicker, but overall from his first outing, I thought he had a pretty good showing."

Rivers asserted himself with his decision-making and how comfortable he was running the Illinois offense as the Illini's training camp progressed and into the first two weeks of the season. That had him ahead of fellow true freshman quarterback Matt Robinson as Bush's backup.

That role, though, isn't guaranteed. Rod Smith purposefully didn't let either Rivers or Robinson know who was No. 2. That won't necessarily change even though Rivers was the first in when Bush went down.

"I like to keep them on edge," Rod Smith said. " I tell them all, 'Be prepared to be the starter. If your name gets called, it's time to go out and perform.' That way there's never any, 'Well, I'm not going.' I want them to stay on edge, and I want them to be ready to go at a minute's notice."

Illinois' young quarterbacks still lean on Bush for leadership. He provided that against Western Illinois even though he was sidelined.

"AJ's a stud," Rod Smith said. "He's a competitor. Trust me, he wanted to be out here. He is also is a first class teammate. He's there to help the quarterbacks. He's there to be another set of eyes. He's there to be another voice to those guys."