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2018 Illinois Football Roster Review: QBs & STs

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We entered the season with many questions about the QBs, and leave with many.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

With another football season gone, it’s time to take a look at how the players performed in 2018. As is tradition we are starting with the quarterbacks, but will also be taking a look at the special teams.

Coming into the 2018 season, I thought we would be seeing perhaps all three freshmen play, as well as AJ Bush. The QB posistion had a lot of questions for me with no easy answers. Illinois was obviously rebuilding, but the best option seemed to be to play AJ Bush, and that is what offensive coordinator Rod Smith choose to do.

However, I thought the reins would eventually be given to one of the younger players and we would see Bush phased out. Bush only had one year left to play, and it made sense for a rebuilding team to give as many reps to younger players as it could, especially when a bowl game was out of the picture.

Bush did lose the starting job, but only for a few games. MJ Rivers took over and played decently well, and was a clear superior passer to Bush and it seemed like he may have taken over the job. But, Rivers suffered a concussion in the Maryland game and Bush took back over and played the best football of his career down the stretch.

There is an argument that perhaps it would have been better for MJ Rivers to see more time to give him expereince for the future, but at the same time Bush fits more closely to what the typical QB in this offense looks like, and the rest of the offense may have benefitted more by having AJ Bush play. Time will tell, but after a season where Illinois entered the QB position with a lot of questions, they will still have more to answer for next season.

AJ Bush

AJ Bush Passing 2018

Games Played Comp Att Pct Yards TD Int Avg Yards/Pass Avg Yards/Gm
Games Played Comp Att Pct Yards TD Int Avg Yards/Pass Avg Yards/Gm
9 94 178 53%% 1132 5 9 6.4 125.8

AJ Bush Rushing 2018

Games Played Att Yards Avg/Carry TD Long Avg/Gm
Games Played Att Yards Avg/Carry TD Long Avg/Gm
9 122 677 5.5 8 44 75.2

After five years with four different schools, AJ Bush’s college career has come to an end. His running ability was crucial to the success of the Illinois rushing attack. His performance in the second half of the Kent State game saved Illinois from suffering a home upset in Week One.

He topped 100 yards rushing four times and scored eight times. Despite being a QB, he was the best power-running option for Illinois as he wasn’t afraid to use his body and break some tackles.

At times running the option, particularly during the Purdue game, Bush kept the ball far too much, and also would be too quick to scramble. His decision making was questionable to say the least and Bush’s struggles in the passing game were clear.

Bush has a unusual throwing motion and would often throw balls while jumping. He showcased a strong arm but was inaccurate even on simple screen throws to running backs. His receivers didn’t do him many favors either.

There are several great passes that come to mind that were dropped, but it was clear why Bush hadn’t played much until his final year of college football with Illinois.

However, Bush played a big role for Illinois. His early season running performances helped Illinois while it was still trying to have the offense catch up to speed. He played a fantastic game in Illinois’ blowout win over Minnesota, and performed very well against the school he originally committed to, Nebraska. He proved that he belongs as a QB at this level and can leave Illinois with his head held high.

MJ Rivers

MJ Rivers Passing 2018

Games Played Comp Att Pct Yards TD Int Avg Yards/Pass Avg Yards/Gm
Games Played Comp Att Pct Yards TD Int Avg Yards/Pass Avg Yards/Gm
8 56 101 55% 547 3 3 5.4 68.4

MJ Rivers has a great throwing motion and a good arm, but may not be the best fit for this offense since he is not the best running QB. That’s what I was able to discern from Rivers’ freshman season.

He can run, he just doesn’t excel at it, and this Rod Smith offense needs the QB to be a big running threat. Rivers did look very comfortable running the option and made good decisions. He can run this offense and will be the leader in the QB battle going into 2018, but with an electric runner like Isaiah Williams coming in for 2019, Rivers will have his work cut out for him if he wants to win the starting job.

What may lead him to winning the job is his throwing. He has a very clean, well-coached throwing motion, but at times he would be inconsistent and miss throws that he should have made. His short throw accuracy was fine, but when he expanded his range to more down the field throws, the accuracy came and went. Because of this Rod Smith rarely let Rivers throw more than 5 yards past the line of scrimmage, which is why his YPC is so low.

There were some things to like for sure. His two TD passes to Edwin Carter in the WIU game were very nice. He will have to improve his running and his consistency with his accuracy. He was the only freshman QB that Rod Smith trusted to play, which means he is the favorite to be the starter in 2019, but there will still be a competition for him. He has all the tools you want. We’ll see if he can put them all together.

Matt Robinson

Matt Robinson Passing 2018

Games Played Comp Att Pct Yards TD Int Avg Yards/Pass Avg Yards/Gm
Games Played Comp Att Pct Yards TD Int Avg Yards/Pass Avg Yards/Gm
3 3 6 50% 11 0 1 1.8 3.7

Matt Robinson Rushing 2018

Games Played Att Yards Avg/Carry TD Long Avg/Gm
Games Played Att Yards Avg/Carry TD Long Avg/Gm
3 8 24 3 0 9 8

Matt Robinson only played in three games, preserving his redshirt. All his play came during garbage time and we saw so little of him that it’s hard to really make any judgment. Because he played while Coran Taylor didn’t, he will be QB2 entering spring ball, and as the only one of the three freshman QBs brought in by Rod Smith, he may be able to make a lot of noise in the upcoming QB battle.

Coran Taylor

Taylor surprisingly didn’t play in any game. With the new redshirt rule I was shocked to never see him even get a series or two at any point, but apparently the coaching staff didn’t agree that he was ‘ready like spaghetti’.

He’ll be entering spring ball as QB3.

Cam Miller

He of his 2017 touchdown against Ohio State fame, only played in a couple of games, running the ball one time. He has a couple of years left of eligibility to use.

Drake Davis

Freshman walk-on saw no playing time in 2018.


The Illinois kicking game was strong yet again. I had no complaints.

Chase McLaughlin

Senior Chase McLaughlin set the record with five 50+ yard field goals this season. His strong leg also came in handy for Illinois on kickoffs with 67% of his kickoffs ended up as touchbacks. He went 20-of-25 on field goal tries, and finished his career without missing an extra-point.

I, for one, am really hoping we can see these sleeves in the NFL soon.

Blake Hayes

Illinois’ offensive MVP from 2017 improved his punting average by 1.7 yards to get to a 43.7 average on the season. Twenty of his 59 punts ended up inside the opponents 20-yard-line compared to 22 of 77 in his freshman season. Keep at it our Aussie punt-god.

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