I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a worse quarterback situation at a P5 school than what was at Illinois last year. The combination of the ability in the room and the coaching from upstairs was frighteningly inept and needed quick changes. The dunce with the headset is jettisoned on Miznoz Island; one quarterback retired from football with a year of eligibility left, while the other willingly transferred to be QB5 at Michigan. Cam Thomas could be a dangerous starter in the future, but from his young quarterback grooming, he wasn’t ready to lead an offense.
But what a difference a few months can make! I don’t expect Illinois to suddenly be Ohio State figuring out which First Team All-Conference guy to start, but there is a serious uptick in quarterback talent for 2018. I’m a big believer in Rod Smith as a guy who can get the most out of his players’ abilities and lead an offense that’s going to be at a talent deficit in some Big Ten games. We’ve still got the defensive position groups to preview, but this seems like a culmination of sorts.
Returning from last year is Cam Thomas, and that’s it.
Thomas had lofty expectations thrown on him too early by a fan base that was desperate for change, and fortunately he handled the early playing time with resilience, because it could have broken a weaker kid. In short, Thomas needs to work on his touch with the football in every area of the field besides downfield, where he’s able to let the ball fly with sporadic (but positive) results. He finished the year with a 42.4% completion percentage, so as the incumbent, a starting job isn’t assured. Where Thomas does get rave reviews is in the 40-yard dash, where he has an incredible burst and can allude defenders with legit 4.5 speed. He ran for 233 yards in McGee’s offense, so IF he starts a full year in 2018, I could see him pushing 1,000 on the ground.
Because having one quarterback on a roster is bad, the Illini coaching staff went to work last year bringing in all types of field generals. They went to Peoria to find an athletic beast with a rifle arm named Coran Taylor, then they went south to Dallas to find the prolific quarterback with accuracy and play-making ability, MJ Rivers. Then, near signing day, new offensive coordinator Rod Smith went back to familiar recruiting grounds in California and plucked a slighter-built blend of the two named Matt Robinson. And finally, knowing that progress is the name of the game in 2018, and not wanting to ask too much from any of the freshman, Lovie and Rod brought in graduate transfer AJ Bush from Virginia Tech.
From an age perspective, Bush has a serious advantage on everyone (including Thomas) for playing time this season. They closed on him quickly after he was identified, signifying that they expect him to come in and play. But, I’ve been skeptical since watching the tape. To me, I see a slower Cam Thomas, with similar deficiencies through the air, and he’s joining in August, so he has a full year less experience than the lone scholarship returner. Odds are, you’ll see both this year. Odds are, you’ll probably see a freshman too. And if you do, I’m putting cash down on it being Matt Robinson, as he was hand-picked by Rod Smith to run his offense. Taylor is the athletic marvel that can come in and beast people without too much offensive knowledge, and Rivers could take best advantage of the solid wide-receiver core, but Robinson seems like the most seasoned of the group and the safest pick to play 11-on-11 while still connecting with Mike Dudek, Ricky Smalling and Louis Dorsey.
But speaking of hand-picked, Smith & Smith have to be looking forward to 2019 in the quarterback room. Not only will all these guys be one year older, but 5-star commit Isaiah Williams will be joining the group. And while everyone in Illini Nation knows exactly who Isaiah Williams is, there is a reason he gets me so excited for the next four years: Williams to me represents Antwaan Randel-El, the kind of X factor that lets a dormant program sneak up and pull off some upsets, and possibly lift said program to a different tier by the time he’s done.
And as we diagnose his ability in Rod Smith’s offense, we can look at his recent past with Khalil Tate as a freshman in Arizona.
Tate took over into his freshman season and became one of the most dangerous weapons in the country, and comes into 2018 as a Heisman frontrunner. Isaiah Williams is a little smaller than Tate, but will be a dynamic quarterback that I’d expect to start as a freshman in 2019. He’s too good not to. That, with Lovie’s willingness to start freshman, allows Illinois to rebrand the team with a suddenly veteran group and an exciting new quarterback.
Illinois will not be recruiting any other quarterbacks for the incoming class, and that’s just fine — they’ve already landed their future.