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CHAMPAIGN — When Illinois head coach Lovie Smith was asked about Nebraska turning over its quarterback duties to redshirt freshman Luke McCaffery in Saturday's win against Penn State, Smith responded with a clear point about the reality of his own quarterback situation.
"No one has cycled through quarterbacks more than we have," Smith said on Monday, two days after the Illini (1-2) beat Rutgers for their first win of the season.
Illinois has started four different quarterbacks in four different games, but Smith didn't come close to showing his cards about who will start at the position at 11 a.m. Saturday at Nebraska. Brandon Peters, who started all 10 games in which he was healthy last season and this year's season-opener against Wisconsin, is eligible to return after sitting out 21 days because of a positive COVID-19 test on Oct. 29.
But redshirt freshman Isaiah Williams, in his first game back after roommate Griffin Moore tested positive on Oct. 29, played well against Rutgers in his first career start. He set a program record for rushing yards by a quarterback with 192 on 31 carries, though he only completed 7-of-18 passes for 104 yards. He gave a jolt to the offense at a time the Illini desperately needed a spark. When asked after the Rutgers game about the possible conundrum, Smith simply said the team had options against Nebraska.
He doubled down on that during his weekly press conference on Monday.
“What I see is that our starting quarterback that’s been out and he’s available this week," Smith said. "That’s a good option. What I also saw is what our other quarterback was able to do this week. Of course, I’m not going to say what our game plan will be. I will say that we have some good options going into this week. That’s what I would say. We’re excited about that."
Smith later clarified his words about "starting quarterback" and "other quarterback."
“What I said is that our starting quarterback, which was Brandon, hasn’t played and he’s back this week," Smith said. "We had Isaiah Williams while Brandon wasn’t here, who went in and played outstanding ball this week. That gives us great options at the quarterback position, since we’ve played four quarterbacks this year."
The game of quarterback musical chairs in Champaign has been brought upon by a mix of COVID-19 and the contact tracing that comes with it and injury. Peters and Moore both tested positive on the same day, which not only knocked Peters our for three games, but it also sidelined Williams for two.
That left redshirt sophomore Matt Robinson to start against Purdue in Week 2, but Robinson suffered an injury on the first offensive series of that game and hasn't played in the subsequent two games. Fourth-stringer Coran Taylor relieved Robinson and started the following week against Minnesota.
Williams took the starting spot on Saturday against Rutgers.
“Obviously we were pleased with how Isaiah played," offensive coordinator Rod Smith said. "We’ve seen that type of performances in practice. It was good to see it carry over to a game. We were thrilled about that.
“Moving forward, once again, I’ve always said we always want to have at least three guys ready to play. We’re trying to get three guys ready. You play one at a time? Do you play two at a time? I think it all depends. It depends the situation, depends on flow of the game, all those types of things; how hot a guy is. All of those guys have to be ready for when their opportunity is called, to be ready to step in and play.
“We’ll see how it goes this week and go from there. I don’t want to elaborate too much. At the same time, we’ve got to let everything play out, move forward and see how it goes this week."
Peters started against Wisconsin but Rod Smith had packages in play to get Williams — who Lovie Smith said is the best on the team at making defenders miss in the open field — into the game. Rod Smith said there's dialogue after every practice and game with his position groups about what worked and what didn't work. Transparency, he said, is present.
"I’ve had, if you want to call it a luxury, a luxury of playing four quarterbacks this year," Rod Smith said. "There better be dialogue with each and every one of them because you never know when your opportunity is going to be. When you get an opportunity, you’ve got to make the most of it. Isaiah made the most of it on Saturday. I thought he did a really good job.
"He’s a guy who is dynamic enough, he needs to be able to see the field in some way. Moving forward, how will that be? I don’t know. We’ll find a way hopefully to kind of keep him involved."