CHICAGO — The first thing Brandon Peters told Lovie Smith at least somewhat addressed the elephant in the room when the former Michigan quarterback announced his intent to transfer to Illinois.
How was a guy known as a drop-back passer going to fit in the Illini offense?
“The first thing he said (was), ‘Coach, I’m a better athlete than I’m given credit for,’” Smith relayed Thursday at Big Ten media days at the Hilton in downtown Chicago. “I’ve just liked talking ball with him what little I’ve had a chance to do. I just think he can bring something different to our team.
“He looked around, and he chose us. I just know that those guys are happy — all the transfers that we have. They’re happy and have jumped right into their role.”
Peters was officially added to the Illinois roster on Thursday morning. So were Southern California graduate transfers Josh Imatorbhebhe and Oluwole Betiku Jr., although fellow former Trojan Trevon Sidney was not. Those four, in addition to Alabama transfer offensive lineman Richie Petitbon, make for the most graduate transfers Smith has added in a single offseason in his tenure at Illinois.
It was purposeful.
“We didn’t take that approach early on,” Smith said. “We wanted to hit high school guys hard and get that solid foundation of guys who would be in our program for four years. We’ve done that. Now, (we want) to be able to bridge some of guys with what we have coming now.
“College athletes can use that to their advantage. If things aren’t working right, get your degree and there are good things that can happen to you. We have a few of them that are kind of like junior-college players coming in with two years, and they’ll help us an awful lot.”
The idea, in Smith’s opinion, is the graduate transfers will “solidify” his previous recruiting classes. Like the 2017 class, of which 16 started at least one game as a true freshman that season. Those players — guys like Alex Palczewski, Ricky Smalling and Nate Hobbs — are all now juniors.
“It’s all about this year,” Smith said. “Those players, again, they bring a little bit of experience and come from winning programs. That should be that little bit that we felt like we needed to get over the hump.”
And it could start with Peters, who, like Betiku, Imatorbhebhe and Sidney, has two years of eligibility remaining. Illinois will enter training camp for the second straight year with a quarterback competition. Like last fall, a graduate transfer will be given a clear shot at the job. AJ Bush Jr. emerged in last year’s training camp as the clear starter from a young group. Peters will be challenged by four-star true freshman Isaiah Williams and redshirt freshmen Matt Robinson and Coran Taylor.
“We wanted a player with experience and a guy that had played at a high level,” Smith said about adding Peters this offseason. “He started at one of the top programs in the country. Eventually, quarterbacks have to be able to throw the football. Brandon can throw it.”
That’s the kicker. On paper, Peters isn’t a perfect fit for second-year offensive coordinator Rod Smith’s scheme. The former four-star recruit out of Avon, Ind., rushed for negative-36 yards in his two seasons on the field at Michigan.
Illinois experienced a bit of an offensive resurgence in 2018 under Rod Smith, but the vast majority of the improvements came in the run game. Reggie Corbin ended up the Illini’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Mikel Leshoure in 2010, but the combination of Bush, since-transferred M.J. Rivers II, Robinson and one trick-play completion from Trenard Davis only accounted for 1,988 passing yards.
That ranked Illinois 12th in the Big Ten.
“We were looking for the best available, the best possible guys we could add to our mix,” Lovie Smith said in response to whether the passing game struggles prompted a search for a passer this offseason. “When you have different quarterbacks — we have four guys on scholarship — you don’t want guys with the same skill sets. But eventually you have to be able to throw the football, so that was a big part of it. I feel like we can get that.
“I think Brandon will end up being a better runner than, again, he’s given credit for. A player that has a running reputation a little bit in Isaiah Williams, I think he’ll end up being a better passer than what he’s given credit for. I feel like our quarterback position, in time, will be in pretty good shape.”