CHAMPAIGN — It was Isaiah Williams and Coran Taylor seven days ago.
Now, it’s Williams and Brandon Peters.
Maybe it’s not yet a quarterback controversy for Lovie Smith’s Illinois football team. But there’s certainly a conversation brewing about who will be starting for the Illini ahead of Saturday’s 11 a.m. kickoff at Nebraska.
Because Peters, who started the season opener versus Wisconsin, is available to play Saturday for the first time since his positive COVID-19 test on Oct. 29.
And because Williams turned his first collegiate start, during this past Saturday’s 23-20 win at Rutgers, into a program-record rushing performance and a Big Ten Freshman of the Week honor.
True to form, Smith did not confirm Monday afternoon who will start for the Illini (1-3) against the Cornhuskers (1-2).
“What I see is that we have our starting quarterback that’s been out, and he’s available this week. That’s a good option,” Smith said. “What I also saw is what our other quarterback was able to do this week.
“Of course, I’m not going to say what our game plan will be. I would say that we have some good options going into this week … and we’re excited about that.”
Smith being pressed on his wording — specifically him saying “our starting quarterback that’s been out” — didn’t produce any additional information on the topic.
“What I said is that our starting quarterback, which was Brandon, hasn’t played and he’s back this week,” Smith said. “We had Isaiah Williams, while Brandon wasn’t here, (who) went in and played outstanding ball this week, is what I said. That’s what I’m saying right now.”
Smith did confirm that Peters, who made the trip to Rutgers and was on the sidelines during the game, is able to practice with his teammates once again.
The offense struggled in Peters’ lone game this season, a 45-7 loss at Wisconsin. He finished 8 of 19 for 87 yards passing while producing a team-high 75 rushing yards.
Williams’ debut as the starter began slowly against the Scarlet Knights but concluded with him rushing for 192 yards — the most ever by an Illinois quarterback — and adding 104 passing yards.
That the 5-foot-10, 180-pound Williams found a groove despite his smaller stature — especially when compared to someone like Peters (6-5, 220) — didn’t surprise Smith.
He pointed to Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (5-10, 207) and Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (5-11, 215) as examples of how the position is changing. And how Williams fits into that change.
“Height and weight are overrated. And I’ve said strength isn’t, but height and weight is,” Smith said. “It’s a new day of what the quarterback position, to me, looks like. It’s a smart, athletic guy that’s a thrower ... but that can make you miss in open field, too.”
Williams wasn’t asked to use his arm all that much against Rutgers, attempting 18 passes versus the Illini running the ball on 59 plays. Peters averaged 25 pass attempts per game last season.
Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith utilized both players in the loss at Wisconsin, though Williams attempted just one rush and three passes, all of which were incomplete.
“Do you play one at a time? Do you play two at a time? I think it all depends,” Rod Smith said. “Depends on the situation, depends on flow of the game, all those type of things. How hot a guy is. Everybody’s got to be ready when the opportunity calls and be ready to step in and play.”
But how will those opportunities be divided — if at all — now that Williams has provided a more complete in-game look at his capabilities?
“Each quarterback obviously has his strengths and has weaknesses, so you try to play to the strength of your quarterback,” Rod Smith said. “Try to play to the strength of your trigger man, and you try to do that as much within a scheme of what we do.”
Rod Smith also is aiming to develop more comfort in Peters’ running ability and Williams’ passing efforts.
Peters displayed against Wisconsin that he’s more than just a pocket quarterback — “I’ve got to let him go a little bit more because he’s proving he can do some things on the perimeter with his legs,” Rod Smith said — while Williams came up with some important completions during the Illini’s comeback win against Rutgers.
While neither head coach nor offensive coordinator directly showed Illinois’ hand when it comes to who will start at quarterback at Nebraska, one particular comment from Rod Smith hinted that more split duties may be on the horizon.
“(Isaiah’s) a guy that’s dynamic enough that he needs to be able to see the field in some way,” Rod Smith said. “So, moving forward, how will that be? I don’t know. We’ll find a way to hopefully keep him involved.”