“Legitimate training camp battles” were the exact words Lovie Smith used in his opening statement at Big Ten Media Day on Tuesday in Chicago.
And the battle Smith mentioned was the one at the quarterback position, likely between sophomore Cam Thomas and senior A.J. Bush, who joined Illinois this season from Virginia Tech as a graduate transfer.
When comparing the two, looking at the stats will not be much of help. Thomas played in four games where he completed 28 of his 66 pass attempts for 375 yards, zero touchdowns and five interceptions.
Bush appeared with very limited playing time in three games for Virginia Tech, throwing for 99 yards, one touchdown and zero interceptions on 7-of-11 passing.
Both quarterbacks showed a dual-threat skillset as Thomas rushed for 233 yards and a touchdown on 52 attempts and Bushed ran for 116 yards on 13 attempts.
Smith is excited for the competition under center.
“That will be a great competition with, of course, Cam Thomas, who finished up in that role, along with incoming guys, whether it be a graduate transfer quarterback or incoming freshman.”
Thomas made strong strides in the spring, according to Smith and offensive coordinator Rod Smith, but still has a lot more he needs to improve on, such as his arm and accuracy as a whole.
But being the only scholarship quarterback on the roster during the spring strongly benefitted Thomas and got him the reps he needed at the position.
“Well, going back to spring practice, we had really one scholarship quarterback that went through spring practice with us,” Smith said. “So Cam got a lot of reps, which he needed, and of course wanted, and we saw a lot of progress with him.”
This progress allowed Thomas to grow, especially with his passing ability.
“Cam brings an awful lot. I described him as a developmental passer, but he has a strong arm,” Smith said. “Of course he did a lot of things with his feet last year, but we’ve seen him — just like we talk about with the rest of the freshmen, he’s grown an awful lot this past year.”
Illinois also brings in freshmen Coran Taylor, MJ Rivers and Matt Robinson, with likely two of them redshirting their freshman campaign. The Illini also have four-star QB Isaiah Williams in the class of 2019.
But come the start of training camp on Aug. 4, Thomas will no longer be the only quarterback on scholarship and a full-fledged competition for the position will be underway.
And whoever comes out on top will have earned the role.
“As I mentioned, it’s legitimate quarterback competition we have in training camp,” Smith said. “We as coaches will put the guys in position and let it play out. And the guy we end up with we’ll feel really good about.”