Asmussen | Another QB gone is a troubling sign for Lovie's next Illini

Asmussen | Another QB gone is a troubling sign for Lovie's next Illini

Maybe it will all work out.

Maybe Matt Robinson will take control of the Illinois offense and lead the team back to the postseason.

Or maybe Isaiah Williams will join the Illini this summer and be even better than advertised. The next Kyler Murray.

But right now, there are troubling signs for Lovie Smith's fourth edition.

On Saturday, potential starting quarterback M.J. Rivers II announced his plan to transfer.

I am hearing Rivers has academic issues and it's unknown if he would be eligible.

So, there's a reason. Rivers didn't decide out of the blue that he doesn't like Rod Smith's offense or he wants to play closer to home.

Suddenly, Illinois is down to two scholarship quarterbacks: Robinson and Coran Taylor, both redshirt freshmen.

That isn't enough. Even with the summer arrival of highly-touted Williams, who looks like a cinch to compete for early playing time.

Illinois must add a graduate transfer quarterback ... or two.

Former Penn State quarterback Tommy Stevens visited Illinois during the weekend. He had limited experience as Trace McSorley's backup, throwing just 41 passes.

Why didn't Stevens stay with the Nittany Lions? McSorley is on his way to the NFL, so there is an opening at quarterback.

Stevens has options, including going to play for Joe Moorhead at Mississippi State. Moorhead is the former Penn State offensive coordinator.

The Bulldogs are coming off an 8-5 season and appear to be going the right direction.

At Illinois, there are no guarantees of success in 2019. Stevens has one year left. Is he willing to take a chance at school that hasn't had a winning record since 2011?

Another possibility for Illinois is former Southern Cal quarterback Matt Fink. Currently sitting in the transfer portal, Fink played sparingly the past two seasons, throwing 18 passes. To his credit, he hit 13 of them for a modest 89 yards.

Lacking continuity

In his first three seasons as Illinois head coach, Lovie Smith has used six different starting quarterbacks: Wes Lunt, Chayce Crouch, Jeff George Jr., Cam Thomas, AJ Bush Jr. and Rivers.

That's alarming. None of the six played all four years at Illinois.

Smith inherited Lunt, who opened his career at Oklahoma State before transferring closer to his Rochester home.

Crouch retired from football with a year of eligibility remaining. Despite early assurances that he would be the guy in 2017, he started just five games that season.

George is the son of my pick as the best quarterback in school history. He left first for Michigan and ended up at Pitt.

Thomas left after one season. Just like Rivers.

Neither Thomas or Rivers seemed to be the long-term answer at quarterback. Both were recruited by Lovie Smith. As was Bush.

Crouch, George and Lunt belonged to the former staffs.

The lack of success at the most important position in football has been reflected in the team's record. Just nine wins overall and only four in the Big Ten for Smith, who turns 61 on Wednesday.

The best of times

Who is the gold standard for Illinois quarterbacks? In the past 20 years, three guys come to mind: Kurt Kittner, Juice Williams and Nathan Scheelhaase.

All three opened and closed their careers at Illinois. All three started as freshmen.

Two of the three, Kittner and Williams, struggled in their first season. Kittner threw seven picks and had only one touchdown pass.

The Illini won three games in Kittner's first year and two the first year with Williams.

They both had breakout sophomore seasons. Kittner had threw 24 TD passes and five interceptions in an 8-4 year. Williams ran and passed the Illini to the Rose Bowl, beating No. 1 Ohio State along the way.

Scheelhaase's career should be the blueprint. Wisely redshirted by Ron Zook his freshman year, he became the starter in 2010 and led the team to back-to-back bowl winning seasons for the first time in school history.

Scheelhaase, Williams and Kittner are 1-2-3 on the school's total offense chart.

The goal for Illinois should be to find the next long-term guy. Someone who will dent the record book over and over again. Someone who can become the face of the program.

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

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