CHAMPAIGN — Somebody is going to start at quarterback for Illinois on Saturday against Michigan. The guess here is it will be Matt Robinson.
The redshirt freshman relieved Brandon Peters in the second quarter at Minnesota. Peters left the game after hitting the turf hard and did not return.
Illinois coach Lovie Smith didn’t offer much of an update on Peters’ status on Monday afternoon. Nor on freshman Isaiah Williams, who didn’t travel to Minnesota because of an injury.
“They’re getting better,” Smith said. “There hasn’t been enough time.”
But Smith and the rest of the Illini coaches are hopeful the Michigan transfer will return.
“We have all this week,” Smith said. “A lot of things can happen.”
If not, it will be Robinson behind center. The same way the Minnesota game ended.
“Each week, we tell our backups to expect, ‘If the guy above me goes down first snap, am I ready to go?’ So you have to prepare yourself that way,” Smith said, “And a lot of it will be with mental reps.”
If Robinson is the starter, his preparation will be amped up. He will get more practice work with the first-team offense.
At Minnesota, Robinson completed 15 of 29 passes for 125 yards in his first extensive college action.
What did the coaches think?
“We could have helped Matt with some of the passes that we dropped,” Smith said. “I thought the protection was fairly good most of the time. When you’re in a situation like that, you need be able to rally around the running game and be able to really establish that. And when you get an opportunity to pass the ball, you need to be able to complete the catch.”
“He battled,” Illini offensive coordinator Rod Smith said. “He didn’t play clean. But for his first true time in terms of importance, I thought he went in and gave us a little spark. He moved the ball. He did some good things. I was excited for Matt and hope it’s something he continues to keep building on.”
Because of his strength as a runner, Robinson offers a changeup to the more pass-oriented Peters.
“If you have a more mobile quarterback, you’re apt to run him more,” Lovie Smith said. “When you’re running an option with a guy that can’t really beat you as a quarterback running, it’s a little bit different mindset for a defense than when you have a guy that can really turn into another running back that can beat you quickly on any given play.”
After Rod Smith joined the Illini staff following the 2017 season, the staff went looking for a high school quarterback to recruit.
“We got Matt late in the process because I was late in the process,” Rod Smith said. “Most of the guys had been signed or were somewhere else. As we scoured through to see what else was still there, Matt was one of the better guys out there unsigned.”
Listed at 6-foot, Robinson’s height likely cost him interest.
“If Matt would be 6-2, he probably would have had a lot more (offers) than he had at the time,” Rod Smith said. “His film was very consistent. He was very productive. His highlight film was 15 minutes long, just play after play after play. In a strong conference in California.”
Robinson had what the Smiths were looking for. And wasn’t bothered by the competition.
“I like the kid, like the person,” Rod Smith said. “I thought he fit the mindset of the quarterback we were looking for. He’s still young. I think Matt’s got a high upside.”
His teammates have his back.
“Matt played great,” Illini offensive lineman Vederian Lowe said. “He did what he could to try to help us win. It’s hard to come in in an environment like that. I feel like Matt kept his composure really well.”
It will be a shame if Peters isn’t able to go against his former school. The star recruit from Avon, Ind., signed with Jim Harbaugh in 2016 and redshirted.
He played in six games, with four starts, in 2017. Last season, he saw limited action for the Wolverines and decided to transfer.
Peters finished a grueling academic schedule in order to graduate in time to transfer to Illinois.
He knew Michigan was on the schedule when he picked the Illni. He talked about getting the chance to compete against his former teammates.
Now, it might not happen.
“His health is the most important thing,” Rod Smith said. “We’ve got to make sure he’s healthy.”
Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at email@example.com.