Spring practice gave Illinois fans reason for excitement. The quarterback battle was one that drew ample interest and Tommy DeVito came out of the spring as the entrenched starter. Art Sitkowski will likely be the top backup, but he may be pushed by Samari Collier.
Don’t be surprised to see Bret Bielema pull in a sophomore quarterback out of the portal by the time fall arrives. He likes to have positions evened out according to yearly classification, if possible.
In this series, most walk-ones will not be covered as Illinois is no longer in a place where they will need game production from the majority of walk-ons.
STARTER: TOMMY DEVITO
Tommy DeVito flashed some refreshing qualities during the spring game. We won’t truly know how he responds under pressure until the season arrives, but the potential is there. DeVito displayed a nice touch on the underneath throws as well as the ability to throw it on a rope 20 yards and in. He’s not a pure pocket passer, as he exhibited some mobility in escaping the rush and also aptly putting the ball on target when rolling out — especially to his right.
The deep balls thrown during the spring game may be of concern. Wide receiver Isaiah Williams was able to adjust and make the catches, but he had his man beat a few times and the ball arrived late. Against better competition, those passes probably would have been broken up.
Offensive coordinator Barry Lunney excels at calling plays to put his quarterbacks in a position to be successful. As DeVito gets more comfortable in the offense, Lunney will continue to adjust his play calling to fit DeVito’s strengths, which should allow DeVito to have a strong senior season.
Career Stats: (Syracuse)
- Passing - 58.9% completion rate, 3,866 total yards, 28 TDs, 12 INTs
- Rushing - 199 attempts, 218 total yards, 4 TDs
DeVito takes some velocity off the pass and throws a catchable ball to Bryant in stride. The tight end ran a drag and took one linebacker with him, while also naturally picking another linebacker which initially freed Bryant. Also of note is McCray setting a great block on the perimeter. (Below)
DeVito rolls out and throws the pass on a rope to Bryant. The OC uses excellent high-low action to make it a difficult read for the cornerback in underneath coverage. (Below)
The play-action sucked in the linebackers and DeVito put the ball on target for the touchdown. The tight end ran a wheel route and then bent it back up the seam. The cornerback lost him, while the safety was being held over the top covering the outside receiver (Hightower). This play was set up by a previous run play where the guard also pulled. (Below)
Touchdown to Williams in which DeVito underthrew the pass. Williams had his man beat and had to slow down and readjust to the ball. Not only was this a mismatch, but the safety was moved to the middle of the field where he was watching DeVito’s eyes. DeVito then came back across and the safety was too late to help. (Below)
BACK-UP: ART SITKOWSKI
Art Sitkowski was unable to participate in much else besides mental repetitions during the spring. According to Bielema, Sitkowski is on track in his recovery progress and will be fully cleared in the coming months.
Sitkowski put forth a tremendous effort into his decision-making last year, flipping his touchdown to interception ratio from his time at Rutgers. He doesn’t possess as big of an arm as DeVito or Collier, but he’s smart and has developed into an efficient passer. There are some throws that he will not be able to make and he can definitely be classified as a true pocket passer as his mobility is limited.
Having Sitkowski as a reliable backup with experience is invaluable. He’ll be able to assist the other quarterbacks with their growth and development. However, having Sitkowski forced into multi-game stretches as the starter will likely mean the offense will regress in the passing game and a more focused rushing attack will ensue.
Career Stats: (Rutgers and Illinois)
- Passing - 53.2% completion rate, 2,735 total yards, 14 TDs, 22 INTs
- Rushing - 70 attempts, -40 total yards
RESERVE: SAMARI COLLIER
Samari Collier took a substantial leap in his development. He’s always had the physical talent, but now he looks comfortable within Barry Lunney’s offense. Consistency will be the key for Collier to move up the depth chart and potentially see playing time.
Collier was often pressured in the spring game and his receivers struggled to get open against the first-team secondary, but when he had his opportunities he took advantage of them. Collier displayed a strong arm and also a nice touch when throwing the intermediate routes. He has plenty of mobility when he needs to scramble and exhibits a smooth stride when running.
As a redshirt-freshman, Collier has development time ahead of him and could move up into the top backup spot if he continues to progress at the current rate. Collier brings some physical tools that not all quarterbacks possess and was certainly a nice surprise coming out of the spring.
Well-designed play by the OC. The inside slot receiver takes the nickel (Martin) inside on what ends up essentially as a drag route. The outside split end (Pugh) ran a natural route rub on the cornerback (Nicholson), which left Anderson for the free release. Collier tossed a perfect pass and Anderson made what can be a difficult catch for a running back by making the over the should grab. (Below)
RESERVE: RYAN JOHNSON
Ryan Johnson was the top backup heading into the spring game with Sitkowski sitting out. He may find himself sliding down the depth chart with Sitkowski’s return from injury and Collier’s development. Both those situations will make it difficult for Johnson to see any type of action in 2022.
Johnson is a former walk-on and struggled in the spring game. He doesn’t possess as strong an arm or the ability to make plays as the other quarterbacks when pressured, but he’ll provide depth in 2022.
Career Stats: (Northern Michigan - DII)
- Passing - 54.9% completion rate, 2,844 total yards, 17 TDs, 10 INTs
RESERVE: DONOVAN LEARY
Donovan Leary may turn out to be former offensive coordinator Tony Petersen’s parting gift. Leary will enter an ideal situation where he’ll be allowed to redshirt and learn at his own pace.
Leary demonstrates the ability to make nearly every throw on film. He has a lively arm, can change velocities on his passes, and moves around naturally in the pocket. Illinois fans will be treated to a quarterback battle in the coming years between Leary and Collier. The potential in the quarterback room has raised substantially.
In our next position preview, we’ll take a look at the deep running back position and what to expect when the 2022 season rolls around.