Two players started at quarterback for Lovie Smith in 2018. Both of them are gone.
AJ Bush Jr. ran out of eligibility. Though he missed time because of injuries, he had a solid senior season. Bush threw for 1,413 yards and ran for another 733. He would have liked more touchdown passes (six) and fewer picks (10).
If Bush had another year to play, the Illini coaches would have giddily welcomed him back. No such luck.
M.J. Rivers II was a different story. The Texan started three games and played in eight.
He seemed to be in line to start in 2019.
But in early May, Rivers announced his plans to leave Illinois because of “personal circumstances.”
Will there every be any more of an explanation than that? Well, I have tried, reaching out to Rivers multiple times. And getting no response.
There isn’t likely to be more on Rivers coming from the Illinois staff.
In three-plus years covering Lovie Smith, I have learned the coach doesn’t spend time talking about players who have moved on.
That approach follows the tradition of most Illinois coaches. And most in college football. When a player leaves, you wish them luck and then go back to work.
Where will Rivers play next? It’s unclear. Maybe it’ll be at a junior college, like with former Illini quarterback Cam Thomas, who is now at Iowa Western Community College. Play there a year and return to the FBS in 2020. Unfortunately for Rivers, he played too many games in ’18 to redshirt.
Rod Smith is open to using multiple quarterbacks if that’s what it will take to make the offense work best.
Who’s it going to be?
Three weeks before the start of training camp, it’s fair to say the Illinois quarterback position is open. Extremely.
Freshman Isaiah Williams, a superstar recruit from Trinity Catholic in St. Louis, is on campus now, getting to know his teammates and learning as much as he can about Rod Smith’s offense.
I’ve told anyone who will listen that the easiest thing for the Illinois staff to do would be to give the ball to Williams. From the start.
Sure, on-the-job training isn’t ideal. But the Illini have three very winnable games to open the season against Akron, UConn and Eastern Michigan. Eastern Michigan is the only projected bowl team among the three.
Williams is a smart guy and a talented athlete. The Illinois offense is similar to what Williams ran at Trinity.
The Illinois coaches have already shown their willingness to start a freshman. Rivers did it. Williams can, too. With a greater chance for success.
It will be risky, of course. But it offers the best opportunity for long-term success.
Plan B, and C
Brandon Peters isn’t officially on the Illinois roster. But he is in Champaign-Urbana. And can participate in volunteer workouts with his new teammates.
The former Michigan quarterback doesn’t fit the style favored by Rod Smith. He was the nation’s No. 6-rated pro-style quarterback when he signed with the Wolverines out of Avon, Ind. Square peg, round hole.
But coaches can adjust. They can find a way to make it work.
Unlike every other quarterback on the Illini roster, Peters has played at a big-time level against big-time competition. His old home field, Michigan Stadium, seats 107,601. In its final three home games last season, Illinois drew 111,053. Big crowds won’t bother Peters.
Unlike most graduate transfers, Peters won’t be a one-hit wonder. He has two seasons of eligibility remaining. If he’s the guy, the Illini won’t have to start over in 2020.
Two other quarterbacks are already on campus for Illinois. Californian Matt Robinson, who split time with Rivers in the spring, and Peoria’s Coran Taylor both redshirted in 2018. Robinson got on the field in three games, throwing six passes.
Robinson and Taylor have the skillset Rod Smith likes.
How will it all play out? No way to know for sure, right now, but it will be fun to watch. And write about.
Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email as firstname.lastname@example.org.