CHAMPAIGN — Let’s start with the obvious: Brandon Peters will be the Illinois starting quarterback in 2020.
No questions. No controversies. It’s a done deal.
Illinois was at its best in 2019 when Peters was on the field. All six wins came when he was the starter.
He was better than most people expected. Including me. Much better.
He didn’t seem to be the ideal fit for Rod Smith’s offense, which functions best with a running quarterback. But the Illini made it work. Peters showed a willingness to use his legs to keep the chains moving, gaining 410 yards on the ground. He lost 197 for a net of 213. Decent.
The Michigan transfer has a chance for a special senior season. If he stays healthy — four returning offensive line starters should help — Peters could add 1,000 yards-plus to the 1,884 he threw for in 2019. That would put him among the all-time best in school history.
Only eight Illinois quarterbacks have topped 3,000 passing yards in a season. Nathan Scheelhaase was the last to do it, throwing for 3,272 yards in 2013. It’s a high bar.
Smith needs to be able count on Peters for more. The Illinois running game takes a graduation hit with Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown moving on.
Mike Epstein’s recovery from knee surgery is on track and he is expected to be full-go for the opener. Epstein can help the Illini offense as a runner for sure. But also as a receiving option for Peters.
From 2006 to ’16, Juice Williams, Scheelhaase and Wes Lunt owned the quarterback position at Illinois.
They are fourth, third and sixth on the school’s career passing chart, respectively. Like during the Mike White era in the 1980s, Illinois was blessed with standout passers.
In recent years, Illinois has been unable to find consistency at the position. Lovie Smith used three starting quarterbacks in both ’16 and ’17 and two each the past two seasons.
Injuries have played a part. As they always do. Peters would have played all 13 games had he not suffered concussions in two of them.
Peters is only a bridge at quarterback. In 2021, against a loaded schedule, Illinois will need a new starting quarterback.
Maybe that player is on campus already. Matt Robinson started two games in place of Peters. He was productive in the second half against Michigan. For the season, the Californian completed just 55 percent of his passes with one touchdown. He remains in the mix for later.
The Illini added a quarterback, Floridian Deuce Spann, during the early signing period. He can learn from Peters in 2020 while competing for backup time.
My guess is the Illinois staff consider adding another quarterback from the transfer portal. It worked like a charm with Peters. Might as well try it again.
A year ago, I would have told you hotshot freshman Isaiah Williams should get the job. Ahead of Peters and the rest. I would have been wrong.
Williams has a strong arm and dynamic athletic ability. But his size (listed at a generous 5-foot-10) is a problem. And it’s a big leap in competition from St. Louis Trinity to the Big Ten.
Wisely, Rod Smith found a way to get Williams on the field at the Redbox Bowl.
My suggestion: Convince Williams to become the team’s Swiss army knife.
Use him at quarterback. A bit. And at receiver. And at running back. Heck, even as a returner.
The main objective must be to get him on the field in whatever capacity.
Williams still has four full seasons to play. He got a taste of the college game in 2019 and now realizes he won’t be able to dominate like he did in high school. Not now.
But time is on his side. Scheelhaase was ready to go his freshman year, but only after redshirting his first season. Kurt Kittner and Juice Williams struggled in their rookie seasons. They might use stronger words.
Eventually, they turned into Big Ten-level quarterbacks.
That can happen for Williams. Or, he can become a star receiver. Or an invaluable change-of-pace behind center. He won at a high level in high school. The goal should be the same in college.
The good news: There is plenty of time for Illinois to figure it all out. Its next game is 239 days away.