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Handicapping Illinois’ 2018 Situation at Quarterback

Let’s took a look at the QBs following signing day.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The QB posistion has been a bit of a mess since Wes Lunt left Illinois in 2016. The Illini used three QBs last season, and of those three one retired from football and another transferred, leaving Illinois with only one returning scholarship QB in 2018.

Before the final signing day today, Illinois only had one additional commit in MJ Rivers, but the Illini were finally able to get Coran Taylor signed after some whispers about academic issues and picked up a commitment from California QB Matt Robinson, the first QB signed by new offensive coordinator Rod Smith.

Now Illinois goes into 2018 with a new offensive system, one second-year QB, and three true freshmen.

Having a lot of youth at the posistion gives Illinois several options going into the future — and a better chance of at least one of the QBs working out, but it will be a struggle in the short term.

Let’s take a quick look at how each project going forward.

Cam Thomas

I had some doubts about Thomas’ future at QB with the Illini. His throwing accuracy isn’t the best, and his pocket presence could use some work. I thought a move to wide receiver may have been in Thomas’ future.

Northwestern v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

But now with Rod Smith coming in as offensive coordinator, this changes. Thomas is a terrific fit for the run-heavy spread system that Smith learned under Rich Rodriguez. Smith coached several QBs who were great athletes, but maybe not top of the line with accuracy and arm strength such as Pat White, Denard Robinson, and most recently Kahlil Tate.

Cam Thomas fits into the Denard Robinson mold. He will need to improve his accuracy, but his speed will be a huge weapon for the offense. He showcased decent playmaking ability and can throw the ball with some zip, even on the run.

Barring any huge surprise, Cam Thomas will be the starting QB for Illinois in the fall. He is the only returning scholarship QB for the Illini, and he had some decent stretches of play after taking over the starting job in the later half of 2017. There are still a few questions marks with Thomas, but if he can pick up the quick reads of the offense, he can be successful in a system that plays to his strengths.

Beyond 2018 is hard to project for Thomas. His athletic ability and arm strength are unquestioned, but we will have to see if he can handle everything else that goes with being a quarterback at a high level to see if he will be the long term answer for the Illini.

MJ Rivers

Rivers lit up his competition in Texas at Lone Star High School in Frisco. In his senior season he threw for 29 touchdowns, and ran in 24 more.

Rivers can deliver the ball accurately to all areas of the field and shows good touch on his deep ball. He is the best passer out of all the QBs, and has the highest upside as a result.

He is a dual-threat QB, but he doesn’t have the game-breaking speed of Thomas or the ability to make something out of nothing like Robinson. However, he reads defenses well on option plays and has decent enough speed to go along with plus size for a QB.

His pocket presence and solid all-around game makes it possible that he could see the field in 2018 if Cam Thomas is injured or struggles.

Rivers will be given every chance to win the job in the long term, and if I had to guess, he has the best shot to be the starting QB in a couple of years.

Matt Robinson

The one thing that really jumps off from Robinson’s highlight tape — sidenote, always remember Hudl is highlight tape and doesn’t show the average or bad plays from a player — is that he has great improvisational ability when plays break down. He is very slippery in the backfield and can keep plays alive by scrambling to give his receivers a chance to get open. That’s a skill you can’t teach, and Robinson has it in spades.

However, nothing else about his game is really eye-popping. His arm is ok, but not great. He has above average speed, but he’s not a player you would call fast. His is on the smaller size at 6’ 1” (spoiler alert: not really 6’ 1”) and only 180 pounds. His size was probably the reason Illinois was his only Power Five offer.

But, he was the only QB of the bunch that was brought in by Rod Smith personally. Rod Smith has a proven track record of developing QBs, and the fact that he brought in Robinson himself speaks highly for Robinson’s future.

“I knew of him (before recruiting), but I had worked with his uncle Greg Robinson at Michigan,” Smith said. “I spoke with him, and Greg was trying to sell it. I took a look and realized this kid’s pretty good.”

Robinson played in one of the toughest leagues in the country, against very good competition and has big-game experience. He doesn’t have the highest ceiling, but he may have the highest floor of the group.

Rod Smith has had great success with undersized QBs who are smart and can get the ball out quickly. Robinson fits that Pat White mold, and could end up as a very solid player for Illinois despite his lack of elite physical skills.

Coran Taylor

Taylor was the first of the three freshman to commit to Illinois. He won a state championship with Peoria in 2016, and he is the most athletic of the new QBs with his speed, size and arm strength. In many ways he is similar to returning starter Cam Thomas, with better potential as a passer.

He will need to improve his consistently on throws and his accuracy, but the raw talent is there. His ability as a runner is especially useful in the Rod Smith offense.

Taylor was the first recruit Rod Smith went out to visit, working on paperwork on a Monday and seeing Taylor “basically the next day.”

“I got to spend two hours with him and he’s really good,” Smith said. “A neat kid, and I’m excited to work with him.”

“He had to know what direction we’re going. He’s an in-state kid, and for me, it’s about taking care of in-state kids first. Just trying to close the fences on kids in state, particularly a guy already committed. I watched film, and I wanted to make sure he was comfortable with me.”

While a lot of the talk about the Illinois’ newcomers goes to MJ Rivers and the latest commit Matt Robinson, Coran Taylor may end up being the guy for Illinois. He doesn’t have the passing upside of MJ Rivers, but he may be a better fit for the offense because of his athleticism. He and Rivers could have a competitive couple of years with each other to see who will be the QB of the future, but we also can’t forget about current starter Cam Thomas.

There are many ways the future of this position can go — let’s not even think about what happens if Lovie Smith and staff are fired.....for now. If Illinois wants to return to football relevance, one of these four need to reach their potential and take a firm grasp on the QB posistion for the Illini.

Who do you think should be at QB against Kent State in the 2018 opener for the Illini?