Nothing lights up Twitter or a forum like a good ol’ quarterback competition! It’s the hot-button issue across Illini Nation, and it’s not likely to be settled until next year at the earliest. I hope our servers are strong, because here come the hits!
Lovie Smith is as concerned with his stable of quarterbacks as your average fan, evidenced by the fact that they’ve accepted three commitments for the class of 2018. These three guys are similar but different, both in skills and readiness to make an early impact in Champaign. Because this column is mostly about hoping and dreaming for a better future, let’s take a deeper dive into what Illinois could be getting with the next batch of signal callers.
After dominating the Illinois state playoffs for Peoria Central as a junior, Taylor was the early centerpiece of the 2018 class. A 6-3, 205-pound redemption shot at letting Aaron Bailey walk out the door.
Why he’s the guy: All three incoming quarterbacks fit the profile, but none quite have the ceiling of Taylor, simply because they aren’t the raw athlete that he is. If this were a track meet, Taylor would sweep the sprints and the jumps, and then run away with the javelin toss. Now, playing quarterback is more than being big and fast, but in college, that’s a great start. There are plays to be made that lesser athletes simply cannot. South Florida’s Quinton Flowers just put on a clinic for Illinois. I’ve had nightmares (dreams) of him avoiding a rush from a nickel corner, rolling out to his right and putting a dime 45 yards downfield on a line to a wide open receiver. Who was the last Illinois quarterback with the quickness to escape, the awareness to look downfield and the arm strength to zip it that far before a secondary could react -- Juice Williams? Coran Taylor will be the next candidate.
What he needs to work on: Reportedly? Grades. I’m not doing an investigative journalism piece into his transcripts, but there is a question as to whether or not he’ll be qualified at the end of the year. Taylor isn’t a finished product as a passer; most importantly he needs to get into the school. After he gets to Champaign, then he can practice his drops and a repeatable arm action for years to come.
The second quarterback commit of the class is the least expected but probably the most polished of the group. Littlejohn doesn’t have the elite physical traits of Taylor, but he has produced at a high level for his high school and is adept at running an up-tempo passing scheme.
Why he’s the guy: So far in his career as Offensive Coordinator, Garrick McGee hasn’t shown the willingness or ability to call a game that takes advantage of an athletic quarterback. Don’t @ me with Lamar Jackson examples, that’s Lamar Jackson -- and even then, the majority of his escapability with McGee was a pocket collapsing and him being able to spread fairy dust on everything. But, Littlejohn compares favorably to Jeff George Jr., and we got a taste of how that can look with South Florida. He isn’t going to wow you with his rocket right arm, but he’s going to make the correct decision and throw an accurate ball to his playmakers.
There are guys like Sam Darnold who make everyone around them better because they’re elite NFL quarterbacks. Then there are guys who don’t do anything exceptional enough to be on a GM’s radar, but do everything well enough to use the talents around them. If Lovie and co. are recruiting weapons at a higher level (Epstein, Dorsey, Smalling, Green), then they don’t need someone to stand on their head but rather make good decisions and deliver a catchable ball on time. From the film available, that seems to be Littlejohn’s strength.
What he needs to work on: If Littlejohn is going to pass the guys ahead of him in class and shine while standing next to Taylor and Rivers, he’s going to have to work on his physical ability. That includes a lot of time in the weight room, but also a lot of time in drills to develop his quick twitch. The quarterback position is at a disadvantage athletically because he’s mostly moving away from the line or standing still, and there isn’t momentum built up to transfer power into motion. To overcome this, the great pocket quarterbacks drill and drill and drill to be able to react to the slightest discomfort with a sidestep or burst forward into a sprint. Littlejohn is a little spindly right now and his movements are too long.
The big hoss from Texas was the latest to commit to Illinois after shunning interest from his home state in favor of Lovie Smith. Those that fondly remember the days of Juice Williams steamrolling safeties are going to love Rivers, whose aggressive running style is reminiscent of the Illini great.
Why he’s the guy: Rivers took a good look at Cam Thomas, Coran Taylor and Cordell Littlejohn all standing in his depth-chart way and still committed to Illinois -- this is a confident kid who’s used to fighting his way up and competing. That’s a tremendous attribute for any young quarterback to have, and combined with a huge menacing frame, it’s a weapon. Rivers isn’t a burner like Taylor, but he’s fast enough to get to his spots and force defenses into bad decisions. Rivers is also blessed with a strong enough arm to make all the throws he’ll be tasked with in McGee’s offensive system, especially if the maturation of the offensive line and tight ends allow the offense to move in a more traditional power scheme featuring more play-action and bootleg action.
What he needs to work on: Rivers has a pretty good arm and makes nice throws on film, but doesn’t show evidence of being able to execute in a structured system yet. In high school, an athlete like Rivers can get away with a lot by being bigger, faster and stronger than his peers. There isn’t a pressure or need to hit your third step and read the outside linebackers drop in conjunction with the coverage style; you’re gifted, you can shed a defensive-end and roll out, and then just look downfield for your receiver that’s waving his arms.