CHAMPAIGN — A week ago, there wasn’t much mystery about who was going to play quarterback for Illinois. I guessed, correctly, it was going to be Matt Robinson.
The redshirt freshman from California made his first college start. After a rough opening quarter against Michigan, Robinson followed the pattern of so many Illini quarterbacks before him: He figured it out.
Kurt Kittner wasn’t great in his first Illinois start. Neither was Juice Williams. Or Jeff George the Senior. They all lost their debuts and lived to tell about it.
The question now: Does Robinson get a second consecutive start? Right now, there is no answer. At least, not from the people who matter.
Actually, two Illinois quarterbacks are on the banged-up list: Michigan transfer Brandon Peters and first-year freshman Isaiah Williams.
“They’re getting better,” Illinois coach Lovie Smith said after Tuesday’s morning workout. “We’ll have to wait a little bit longer to see how they do.
“Our backup has gotten some valuable plays. If Brandon can’t go, Isaiah has gotten a few. That’s the good part about what has happened with an injury. We’ll see how it goes.”
Peters left the Oct. 5 game at Minnesota in the second quarter after taking a hard shot. Because of the concussion protocol, Peters missed the game against Michigan last Saturday.
He certainly wanted to play against his alma mater. In the old days, he probably would have.
But thankfully, advanced medicine dictates special precautions be taken when it comes to head injuries. So, even if Peters had said, “I’m good,” he would not have been allowed on the field.
The coaches now have a better sense of Robinson on gameday. When he first got sent on the field at Minnesota, it was without the benefit of preparing as the starter.
Before Michigan, he knew it was his team for the day.
Robinson and the Illini got way behind, then rallied to within three points.
“Third quarter, I loved what he did,” Smith said. “He had to make a lot of good throws. He moved the ball. He was active. Bought time with his feet.”
So, there’s a quarterback controversy, right?
Not a chance.
“Brandon Peters is our starting quarterback,” Smith said. “Our backup quarterback played well for parts of the last game. When our starting quarterback is ready to go, he’ll go.”
Smith runs the team. The ultimate decision-maker.
The head coach on offense is second-year coordinator Rod Smith. No surprise, his comments match those of Lovie Smith.
Monday afternoon was the first chance for reporters to talk to Rod Smith. What did he think of Robinson?
“I thought he battled,” Rod Smith said. “For his first start, I thought he went out and did some good things. There were some things that he missed. But there were also some plays he made as well that I thought kept us in the ballgame.”
Robinson seemed to get into a groove in the second half.
“I know what he can do,” Rod Smith said. “Sometimes, it’s a matter of the kids believing moreso than what I believe. The more he goes out and has success and can make plays and do some of the things he did, particularly against a highly-rated defense like it was, it’s got to give him confidence. It gives our team confidence as well.”
The wild card
Williams left the Michigan game because of an injury.
Before he got hurt, Williams was swapping series with Robinson. That was the plan until it wasn’t.
Williams has played in two games. He can work two of the final six and still be eligible to redshirt.
When does Lovie Smith start to consider whether to play Williams?
“I think once you get to three,” he said. “Isaiah is not our starter. You keep those guys ready just in case.
“Have you ever been at a game where two quarterbacks went down? I have.”
The coaches keep track of the freshmen and how many games they have left before the redshirt is gone.
The coaches are happy with the way Williams is handling his freshman season. The highly-regarded recruit from St. Louis had a lot thrown at him early and has continued to make progress.
“The injury part is probably the most frustrating part to him,” Rod Smith said. “He understands there’s an adjustment period. You’re playing a totally different level of talent than you did in high school. Some kids adjust fast. At the quarterback position, it takes time.”
Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.