CHAMPAIGN — During one of the spring Zoom calls with new Illinois football coach Bret Bielema, I asked if he would consider adding a graduate transfer quarterback.
“Right now, I think we’re sitting steady where we are from a quarterback standpoint,” Bielema said. “We’ll see what kind of comes out of the back end of spring ball. There’s a lot of things that happen post-spring on each individual campus across the country.”
Like at Rutgers, which finds itself down a quarterback with Wednesday’s departure of Artur Sitkowski. The New Jersey native, once a high-end recruit out of IMG Academy, is on his way to Champaign.
Turns out, I should have been more specific with my question to the coach and left the word “grad” out of the phrase.
My quick take: Sitkowski isn’t coming to Illinois to become the 2021 starter. That job is filled already by Brandon Peters, who finished with a strong performance in the spring game.
But Peters has missed time during his playing career because of injury and illness. When the Illinois coaches saw a chance to add a capable backup, they wisely took it. You can’t have too many options, especially at a vulnerable position like quarterback.
The move will definitely get the attention of the other quarterbacks on the roster. Isaiah Williams, Matt Robinson, Coran Taylor and Deuce Spann now have another guy to compete against for the backup job. They will be joined in training camp by Samari Collier.
That’s six guys competing for practice snaps behind Peters, who figures to get the bulk of the work.
By my count, that is a few too many. Expect a player or two to seek an opportunity elsewhere between now and the start of the 2021 season.
There is also a chance Williams will be asked/requested to move to a different position.
As a star at Trinity Catholic in St. Louis, Williams had scholarship offers from most of the power programs. He selected Illinois in part because of Lovie Smith’s promise to play him at quarterback, although he did line up as a receiver during the Redbox Bowl in 2019.
Smith isn’t the coach anymore.
To their credit, Bielema and the new offensive staff gave Williams a long look at quarterback during the spring.
Back in the dayI have seen this movie before. Multiple times.
Walter Young came to Illinois as a prospective quarterback. But Kurt Kittner was in front of him and Young quickly found a new home at receiver.
It was a smart move for both the player and the team. Young blossomed at his new spot, helping Illinois win the 2001 Big Ten title.
Young remains one of the school’s career leaders in touchdown catches, receiving yards and receptions.
Christian Morton wanted to play quarterback at Illinois after a standout career at Riverview Gardens in St. Louis.
A stellar athlete, he tried to compete at the position before moving to defensive back.
For both Young and Morton, their position switches led to time in the NFL.
Young played five seasons, winning a Super Bowl with Pittsburgh. Morton spent three seasons with Atlanta, Washington and Carolina.
Perhaps Williams can follow their path. Maybe two years from now, he will be spending a late April night waiting for the NFL to call.
Ignore the numbers
Back to Sitkowski.
At Rutgers, his statistics were scary. Not in a good way.
In 18 career games from 2018-20, Sitkowski threw 20 interceptions and only eight touchdowns.
But it was understandable. Until Greg Schiano took over at Rutgers in 2020, the program was a mess.
It’s likely many of the wayward throws were made under duress.
Illinois provides Sitkowski with a fresh start. The INT total goes back to zero. Like a Mendoza-line-hitting baseball player that gets traded during the season.
As a high school senior, Sitkowski was admired enough to get a boatload of Power Five offers. He didn’t forget how to throw the ball. He simply needs a refresher.
That’s where Illinois offensive coordinator Tony Petersen and the offensive staff step in.
There are all sorts of examples of quarterbacks thriving at their second stops.
And because Peters is in place, there is no hurry. The real test for Sitkowski and the rest comes in 2022, when Peters is out of eligibility and Illinois needs a new starter.
That’s a column for another day. One that will include an additional name (Donovan Leary) or two.