CHAMPAIGN — “It’s obvious I have a beard. It’s obvious AJ is our guy.”
Just a few minutes into his first weekly press conference of the season on Monday, Illinois head coach Lovie Smith commented on his gray facial hair — and named graduate transfer QB AJ Bush the Illini’s starting quarterback for the 2018 opener vs. Kent State this Saturday.
Bush beat out sophomore Cam Thomas and a trio of freshmen for the starting spot.
“I really like what Bush brings to the table offensively,” Smith said.
Illinois added the 6-foot-4, 225-pound QB in March after he transferred from Virginia Tech, where he spent a season after years at Iowa Western Community College and Nebraska. While he didn’t get playing time as a redshirt freshman at Nebraska, he played in 10 games and threw three touchdowns at the JUCO level.
At Virginia Tech, Bush’s time was sparing — five games with just 11 pass attempts. He threw for 99 yards and one touchdown while garnering 129 yards on 19 rush attempts.
Putting in the Work
Still, Illinois thinks Bush might be the answer to at least help the Illini be competitive in 2018, after a 2-10 season last year and zero Big Ten victories. Smith said it was throughout camp that Bush began to earn his role, especially since Day 1.
“Excited about what AJ has done,” Smith said. “Moved into a leadership role right away. Once we started practicing in the stadium, he looked pretty comfortable out there.”
First-year offensive coordinator Rod Smith echoed Smith’s comments about Bush’s work ethic and ability to really take hold of the offense during training camp. According to the OC, Bush only had “one really bad day” during camp, which is pretty unheard of for a player who never really held the type of role he currently has.
“The dude made plays through camp and was probably the most consistent QB we had,” Smith said. “He made the least amount of mistakes, and all the things we asked our quarterbacks to do he displayed through camp. I don’t think that was a luck thing, but it was a culmination of him being here every day during the offseason putting in time. It shows the kind of kid he is and what he wants.”
Those other quarterbacks didn’t provide much production last year, so anything Bush can bring to the table will certainly be better. Jeff George, Jr., Chayce Crouch and Thomas all saw at least four games of action, but they threw for just eight touchdowns all season.
Following the season, George transferred to Michigan (and now Pitt) and Crouch retired from football, leaving Thomas as the only scholarship quarterback on the team during spring ball.
While it seemed like it would give the sophomore Thomas a leg up on the competition, his arm’s issues are too much for the team to take a chance on him as the opening week starter, even though he might be one of the offense’s fastest weapons.
Thomas may still be the backup, but Smith & Smith wouldn’t share any more details about the quarterback depth chart on Monday. Rod Smith did say, however, that he would like to have a few ready to go if — “knock on wood” — something ever happened to one.
“If you’re good enough to play, I feel comfortable enough to play you when the time is right,” Smith said. “Unfortunately, you can only play one quarterback. The key is to make sure you have at least three ready to roll, and that’s our goal.”
AJ Bush is an unknown, but all signs are pointing the arrow up, and that should be good enough for all of us.
“I just want to get my team in the endzone,” Bush said. “If I feel any pressure, it’s pressure that I’ve wanted for my whole career. I’m excited for this opportunity, and if anything, I want this pressure.”
“I’m at a loss for words, and I still have a lot to prove. This is just the start.”
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