Asmussen | Trio of QBs honing skills ahead of fall's inevitable starting battle

Asmussen | Trio of QBs honing skills ahead of fall's inevitable starting battle

Last time Illinois had three quarterbacks in the same recruiting class — before 2018 — was in 1996. Lou Tepper's signees included Justin Cella, Brian Sheard and Tim Lavery.

Cella didn't stay very long at quarterback, getting moved to defensive end and eventually transferring to Western Carolina. Sheard left the program during his second season after falling far down the quarterback depth chart.

Only Lavery got on the field for Illinois at quarterback, starting five games during Ron Turner's first season in 1997. Splitting time with Mark Hoekstra and Kirk Johnson, Lavery completed 39 percent of his passes, with two touchdowns and eight interceptions.

Later, Lavery switched full time to baseball.

Will history repeat? Are M.J. Rivers II, Matt Robinson and Coran Taylor destined for similar fates? Too soon to make that call. But there are significant differences between the current trio and the '96 model.

Rivers, Robinson and Taylor were recruited by the current staff. The first time they worked out at Illinois was with offensive coordinator Rod Smith, who remains in charge.

The '96 quarterbacks changed coaches and schemes. From a run-oriented offense under Paul Schudel to a passing friendly offense under Turner.

Back in '96, there were two options: play as a freshman or redshirt. Cella, Lavery and Sheard all redshirted.

In '18, because of injuries to starter AJ Bush Jr., Rivers played in eight games. He completed 55 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and three interceptions. Rivers will be a sophomore eligibility-wise this season.

"Being able to be out there and get more than just mental reps, it was very helpful," Rivers said.

Thanks to the new redshirt rule, Robinson remains a freshman despite playing in three games. The limit is four, which the Illinois coaches wisely didn't let Robinson exceed.

Only Taylor will be new to the field this season.

Getting along

They came to Champaign-Urbana from different parts of the country. There's a Texan (Rivers), a Californian (Robinson) and the local guy (Peoria's Taylor).

Their relationship is strong. They are friends, on and off the field.

"I treat them like brothers," Rivers said. "I look out for them just the way they look out for me."

"We push each other each day, always trying to have competition in whatever we're doing," Robinson said.

"We always have a good time together," Taylor said. "We're always joking around, but when it's time to work, we get our work done."

They learned the college game together. But the experience was different for each guy.

"I felt real comfortable out there," Robinson said. "I felt like I could do really well and have a really good college career."

The players weren't bothered to see two other quarterbacks in their class. They knew the situation when they signed.

"It's whatever the team needed," Rivers said. "We just bought in because no matter what, at the end of the day we all want to win."

There was more to their adjustment to Illinois than the football piece. They all became college students for the first time.

"Life is like an amusement park," Taylor said. "Every different section of the amusement park has different roller coasters. That's how life is. So coming in, you have your ups and downs. But you always get through them. It went well for me."

"You just want to get in the swing of everything and make sure that everything is going smoothly," Rivers said. "We have a lot of help."

"You've got to make sure you're managing your time, getting your schoolwork done," Robinson said. "It's a grind sometimes because you don't have a lot of free time. You've got to make sure you're on top of your stuff and get everything done."

Work to do

The season doesn't open until Aug. 31, when Akron visits Memorial Stadium. That's a long time from now.

The three quarterbacks plan to spend the winter, spring and summer getting ready. Later, they will be joined by hotshot prospect Isaiah Williams from St. Louis, who is part of the incoming recruiting class.

What do they need to do between now and then?

"Don't worry about anything, just make sure I can perfect my craft and everything I do as far as my feet, my accuracy and just prepare," Rivers said.

"I just need to work my hardest and everything I do, make sure I'm giving 100 percent effort, spending the time in the film room as well as the weight room," Robinson said.

"There's always little things you can get better at day by day," Taylor said. "Studying the playbook, getting sleep, eating the right things so your body can be prepared for the season and getting good workouts in."

The three quarterbacks are all fans of Smith, who will decide the starter.

"I love Coach Rod," Robinson said. "He's great. I couldn't ask for a better coach to have."

"He's a great guy," Rivers said. "He teaches me day in and day out on any aspect of life. I love that I know that he has my back."

"Coach Rod, he's a funny dude," Taylor said. "He's about his business and he knows what he's talking about. I really like Coach Rod a lot."

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

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