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AJ Bush offers leadership, insight in new starting role for Illini

“It’s a blessing.”

Trevor Diedrich:

“I’ve completed a pass before — not many — but I’ve completed a pass before,” senior AJ Bush joked with the media on Monday afternoon after being named Illinois’ Week One starter.

On his fourth school in five years, Bush has finally found his starting job. His career started at Nebraska where he redshirted and spent two seasons under coaches Bo Pelini and Mike Riley. Bush then transferred to Iowa Western Community College where he spent one season. He committed to Virginia Tech last January where he played in five games before deciding to join the Illini.

“It’s a blessing,” said Bush. “I’ve been preparing and praying for this moment. It feels good to actually have it come to life. I’m at a loss for words, but at the same time, I still have a lot to prove. This is just the start.”

This is the start, not just for Bush who is making his first start under center at the D-1 level, but for others too.

For fans, this is when people have expected to see progress. Head Coach Lovie Smith is now entering his third season with the team. His recruits saw a lot of action as freshmen last season, and they’ll be expected to take another step this year as an experienced sophomore class.

For quarterbacks like Cam Thomas, Matt Robinson, Coran Taylor and MJ Rivers, their start will be on the sidelines this year. Thomas saw some time last year as a freshman with a younger, even more inexperienced group. He completed 28 of 66 passes last season for 375 yards, but was more effective on the ground, rushing for 233 yards on 52 carries in his four appearances. Meanwhile, Robinson, Taylor and Rivers are all making the transition to college football.

A season behind an upperclassmen could be good for all parties. Bush gets his shot to lead a team and run the show while the younger guys get the opportunity to learn under a vet in a system that’s new to almost everyone.

Bush knows as good as anyone else what it’s like to lose a position battle and that it’s just as much mental as it is physical.

“It’s the same message I tried to tell myself last year and the year before - ‘stay ready, stay patient, and stay prepared like you’re the starter’,” Bush said about the backups. “They have to be ready. The team still needs them. Being a backup quarterback is one of the hardest positions on the team because you have to be ready. If you aren’t, everyone’s going to be disappointed in you. But you also might be disappointed that you aren’t out there. It’s a weird mindset, but you have to just attack it and be ready for your opportunity.”

With Isaiah Williams committed to the 2019 class, there’s no telling how next season’s battle might shape up, but for now the keys to the offense rest in AJ Bush’s hands.