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2018 Illinois Football Roster Preview: QBs

Illinois has a tricky QB situation to manage for new offensive coordinator Rod Smith.

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

Fall camp has finally started and we are almost to another college football season. This year has a lot of uncertainty for the Illini. It is a rebuilding year again for sure, but across the team there are a bunch of questions to still be answered.

How will the offense look under new offensive coordinator Rod Smith? Who is going to step up in the secondary? Will the offensive line find any sort of stability with the freshman starters from last season now sophomores.

But there is no question bigger on any fan’s mind right now than who will be playing QB for Illinois.

The Illini had the worst QB production of any power five school and one of the worst in the nation as well. Cam Thomas is the only returner with any meaningful playing time after Chayce Crouch retired due to injury and Jeff George Jr. moved on to Michigan.

Illinois will need to figure out what the future of this posistion holds if Lovie Smith hopes to be in Champaign come 2020. There may be a high priority to get the young players snaps, but would playing the grad-transfer AJ Bush actually be better for the development of the whole offense? It’s not an easy answer, but further complicating it is the impending arrival of a 2019 QB from Trinity Catholic in St. Louis, Isaiah Williams.

Williams appears to be a guy who will be given a shot to be QB1 on his first day of camp next offseason. He is one of the highest ranked recruits for Illinois in recent memory and looks to be a perfect fit for the offense.

There is also the new redshirt rule allowing players to play up to four games and still take a redshirt season. It’s clear multiple guys will be taking snaps for the Illini.

Let’s take a look at each quarterback.

AJ Bush - #1, SR, 6’ 4”, 225 lbs

AJ Bush Passing

Year Games Played Comp Att Pct Yards TD Int Avg Yards/Pass Avg Yards/Gm
Year Games Played Comp Att Pct Yards TD Int Avg Yards/Pass Avg Yards/Gm
2017 (Virginia Tech) 5 7 11 64% 99 1 0 9 19.8

AJ Bush Rushing

Year Games Played Att Yards Avg/Carry TD Long Avg/Gm
Year Games Played Att Yards Avg/Carry TD Long Avg/Gm
2017 (Virginia Tech) 5 19 129 6.8 0 34 25.8

AJ Bush is determined to be a starting QB in a power conference, and it looks like he may finally get his chance in his final season of college football with the Illini. After two seasons at Nebraska, Bush transferred to play one season at Iowa Western Community College.

Bush then moved to Blacksburg to play for Virginia Tech, but saw very little of the field playing behind Josh Jackson. Bush then choose to become a grad transfer and now, here he is.

Despite not seeing much of the field, Bush is still the most experienced Illini QB. He’s has been praised for his leadership at every stop he has been at as well. For the start of fall camp, AJ Bush is seeing the snaps as the starter even though he wasn’t with the team during spring practices like Cam Thomas. He has a very strong arm, and has the athleticism needed from Rod Smith QBs.

He’s the best option to start the season, but the question is if — OK, let’s not kid ourselves — when Illinois drops out of contention for a bowl, will we start seeing less of AJ Bush?

But at least to start the season, this looks to be AJ Bush’s team. It’s hard to predict what Illinois will get out of him since he has seen so little of the field, but there is little doubt it will be better than what Illinois got of the posistion last season.

He’s also left handed for those of you who don’t know. Always like a lefty QB.

Coran Taylor - #7, FR, 6’ 2”, 205 lbs

According to 247 sports, Taylor just edges out MJ Rivers to be the highest ranked of the three new freshman quarterbacks. Taylor is an in-state recruit from Peoria, and accepted an offer from Illinois very early on in the process.

He has a live arm, but needs to polish his passing game. I would speculate that he is the least likely of the newcomers to see the field, but with the new redshirt rule, he could very well see some game time later in the season. I really like his upside.

MJ Rivers - #8, FR, 6’ 4”, 215 lbs

Rivers put up huge numbers in high school in Frisco, Texas. He is a good runner with great size, and he has a very strong arm. He wasn’t heavily recruited with his only other Power Five offer being Iowa State.

He’s very similar to Coran Taylor at this time and just like Taylor, Rivers needs to work on his accuracy for this level, and again, like Taylor, he will probably get a redshirt. Again, new redshirt rule though. Why couldn’t we have this last year? Mike Epstein would be a redshirt freshman.....god damnit.

Cam Thomas - #10, SO, 6’ 2”, 200 lbs

Cam Thomas Passing

Year Games Played Comp Att Pct Yards TD Int Avg Yards/Pass Avg Yards/Gm
Year Games Played Comp Att Pct Yards TD Int Avg Yards/Pass Avg Yards/Gm
2017 4 28 66 42% 375 0 5 5.7 93.8

Cam Thomas Rushing

Year Games Played Att Yards Avg/Carry TD Long Avg/Gm
Year Games Played Att Yards Avg/Carry TD Long Avg/Gm
2017 4 52 233 4.5 1 27 58.3

Rod Smith needs his QBs to not only be effective in running the football, but excel at it. Cam Thomas has the speed and burst to do just that and he showed it off last season. He is one of the fastest — if not the fastest player — on the offense. That’s a huge plus for him.

However, Thomas struggled passing the ball last year in his true freshman season. It was obvious that Lovie Smith wanted to give him a redshirt and didn’t think he was ready, but injuries and poor QB play forced his hand. Thomas has a good enough arm, but his accuracy can be all over the place.

He has been working on his mechanics with new offensive coordinator Rod Smith and has spent the most time with him, but that only goes so far.

I don’t think Thomas will win the job, but I expect him to be given plenty of opportunities on the field. I don’t think Illinois will be hesitant to play multiple QBs in the same game, especially if Illinois is significantly behind or ahead. The players all need reps.

However, based on what was shown on the field last season from Thomas, and some of the reports coming out about him still struggling with consistency, I think Thomas could continue to fall down the depth chart, especially with Williams coming in 2019.

Thomas does have the speed, size and quickness to potentially move to WR. Illinois would sure love to get as much speed on the field as possible, but that sort of move is just speculation and wouldn’t happen until closer to the end of the year if it were to take place.

I love his speed and running, and I think he could do good things in this offense, but his passing needs to take a big step forward.

Matt Robinson - #12, FR, 6’ 1”, 185 lbs

Robinson was the first QB brought in by new offensive coordinator Rod Smith. Robinson is from San Juan Capistrano, California, and was seemingly picked up out of nowhere by Rod Smith. Robinson held no Power Five offers and wasn’t even ranked by most scouting services.

The three-star QB does have talent; it’s just his lack of ideal size that made teams overlook him. He is the most accurate of the freshman, but the least athletic.

I think Robinson is ahead of Rivers and Taylor for now, but things can change quickly. I think we will see him on the field at some point this season, but not enough to burn off that redshirt.

Drake Davis - #14, FR, 5’ 11”, 195 lbs

Davis is a walk-on coming out of Naperville, Illinois. He was a named 2017 Illinois 8A all-state, and totaled nearly 10,000 yards in high school.

Cam Miller - #16, SO, 6’ 1”, 215 lbs

His touchdown last season was one of the best moments for Illinois.

Projected Depth Chart

QB1 - AJ Bush

QB2 - Cam Thomas

QB3 - MJ Rivers OR Coran Taylor OR Matt Robinson

To start the season this will be AJ Bush’s team, but Illinois’ priorities may change later in the year and with the new redshirt rule there is potential for all five to see game time.