CHAMPAIGN — Tony Petersen isn’t troubling himself with the idea of a quarterback controversy.
It’s far too early in the year for that, according to Illinois football’s first-year offensive coordinator.
Rod Smith, Petersen’s predecessor, handled plenty of questions last season about Brandon Peters and Isaiah Williams — the two quarterbacks who ran the Illini offense for the majority of the 2020 campaign.
Petersen isn’t concerned he might have to do the same in 2021, with Peters, a super senior, and Williams, a redshirt freshman, both still in the fold.
“I’m OK with (a quarterback competition) going into fall camp. That doesn’t bother me at all,” Petersen said. “But at the same point, if you walk away from spring practice and somebody’s absolutely earned that job, then that’s great. You know who your starting quarterback is.”
This approach still leaves a separate query unanswered. And it’s an important one, given how much time both Peters (five games) and Williams (six games) spent on the field last fall.
How will Petersen utilize this pair of potential No. 1 quarterbacks?
“Where it gets worrisome is if you get to a point where you’re getting close to that first game week and you still don’t know who your starting quarterback is,” Petersen said. “I haven’t had that situation very often because usually that’s when people are trying to play two guys because they don’t know who their starter is. And that’s not a good thing to have.”
With that thought process likely disseminated to the Illini quarterback room, as well, Peters and Williams opened spring ball on a cloudy Tuesday morning as co-No. 1 options inside Memorial Stadium.
Coran Taylor, Matt Robinson, Deuce Spann and walk-on Josh Beetham joined Peters and Williams in working through numerous drills along the Zuppke Field turf on Tuesday.
Footwork exercises. Drop-back routines. Handoff efforts — Peters to top returning rusher Chase Brown, Williams to Arkansas transfer Chase Hayden.
As a chilly breeze flowed among the players under an overcast sky, a horn would blare every five minutes to signal the start of a new drill for the quarterbacks and other position groups dotting the field.
“I’ve got a bunch of guys that are going to get some reps early,” Petersen said of his quarterbacks. “The guys that are going to go with what I call the first offensive line out there (are) going to be Brandon and Isaiah ... and then the other guys are going to rep with the other group.”
Petersen didn’t tip his hand about favoring either Peters or Williams as his starter more than five months ahead of the Aug. 28 season opener versus Nebraska.
But he did offer up praise for the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Peters, about to enter his sixth season of college football.
“He can run really well,” Petersen said. “He’s got a strong arm, quick release.”
And did the same for the 5-10, 180-pound Williams, who established a single-game rushing record by an Illini quarterback last November in a win at Rutgers.
“A shorter quarterback, but he can throw it,” Petersen said. “Very athletic. Probably one of the more athletic guys on our team.
“Both of those guys have the ability to run the system easily, and it can be tweaked around either guy.”
Petersen did have plenty to say about his desire for Peters to grow in a vocal capacity. It’s a topic that’s sprung up during each of Peters’ first two years at Illinois, as well.
“The more I’m around him ... he speaks up a little bit more,” Petersen said. “I told him, ‘Brandon, I’m going to be on you about this and pushing you on this because this is going to make you a better football player and a better leader out there on the field.’”
Petersen describes Williams as “just the opposite of Brandon” in that regard.
“Kids gravitate toward Isaiah,” Petersen said. “He takes control of the huddle. He’s a more vocal type of kid, and that’s just what he is naturally.”
Petersen’s overarching concerns for the quarterback group are ball security and nailing down the intricacies of the Illini’s new system in order to spend more time focusing on breaking down opposing defenses.
Not to mention witnessing how his quarterbacks actually perform on the field this spring after eight weeks of off-field preparation.
“We’re going over film ... and I said, ‘This is easy in here. Now, we’ve got to go out and see if you can do it out there,’” Petersen said. “Our goal is always to make practice at a certain level of pressure on them to where the games are easy.”