CHAMPAIGN — Lovie Smith waited until the Monday before the 2018 season opener against Kent State to officially announce graduate transfer AJ Bush Jr. as Illinois’ starting quarterback.
This after the former Nebraska/Iowa Western/Virginia Tech quarterback made it clear early in training camp last August he was the best option for the Illini.
Brandon Peters has done the same in the last week-plus of practice, and Smith decided to not wait any longer on making public what was becoming clear watching the Illinois offense during workouts. On Tuesday afternoon, the Illini coached named Peters, a Michigan transfer, the starter for the Aug. 31 season opener against Akron.
“We loved Brandon when we got a chance to know him during the recruiting process,” Smith said in a statement after inclement weather cut short Tuesday morning’s practice and subsequent interviews. “Now that we’ve seen him on the field, he has been everything we thought he would be. He has really thrown the ball well and is a better runner than he’s given credit for.
“Most importantly, he has moved into a leadership role for us. We’re pumped up about Brandon leading us heading into the season.”
Peters was in competition mostly with redshirt freshman Matt Robinson and true freshman Isaiah Williams in training camp. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound Peters showed off the best arm of the bunch in addition to an ability to at least extend plays with his feet in offensive coordinator Rod Smith’s system.
“I see a lot of good things so far,” Peters said after an Illinois practice on Aug. 8. “We just keep getting better. I’m not really used to an uptempo offense coming from Michigan. I like that it helps you get in a flow and a groove a little bit.”
Peters will be the second graduate transfer and fourth overall different quarterback — following Bush (2018), Chayce Crouch (2017) and Wes Lunt (2016) — to start the season opener at Illinois in Smith’s tenure with the Illini.
Peters will also be the seventh quarterback to start for the Illini under Smith, with Jeff George Jr., Cam Thomas and M.J. Rivers II also part of that group.
He’s the first Indiana native to start at quarterback at Illinois since George Jr. did so during nine games in the 2016 and 2017 seasons, and only the fourth native of the Hoosier state to start at quarterback for the Illini since 1975, joining Jeff George (24 games in 1988 and 1989) and Mike McCray (five games in 1977).
Peters has two years of eligibility at Illinois after transferring from Michigan. He played in 10 games during his time at Michigan and made four starts in 2017 for the Wolverines, completing 58 of 110 passes for 680 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions throughout his playing career in Ann Arbor.
A former-four star recruit, Peters was the No. 3 pro-style quarterback in the nation in the 2016 class. The Avon, Ind., native was the 2015 Indiana Mr. Football winner and threw for 6,843 yards, 79 touchdowns and 17 interceptions in his high school career.
Now, he’ll get the chance to lead an Illini program that has gone 9-27 under Smith, hasn’t posted a winning season since 2011 and last made a bowl game in 2014. This after he only committed to Illinois on June 18 after he put his name in the transfer portal, falling behind Shea Patterson and others on the Michigan quarterback depth chart.
If he keeps hold of the starting job through at least the first five games this season with Illinois, he’ll have a chance to face his old team. Jim Harbaugh’s program comes to Memorial Stadium on Oct. 12 in the sixth game of the season for the Illini, with the Wolverines making their first trip to Champaign since 2011.
“It’s going to be weird, for sure,” Peters said after the first Illini training camp practice on Aug. 2 about playing Michigan. “I know all the guys on the team. I think it will be fun, too.”