CHAMPAIGN — AJ Bush joked that he would walk into his apartment on Monday afternoon where his mom, dad and sister are visiting and tell them it happened again.
"It" being that Bush was once again passed over for a Division I starting quarterback job.
Except "it" didn't happen again.
Illinois head coach Lovie Smith announced on Monday that Bush, a fifth-year graduate transfer from Virginia Tech, will be the starting quarterback when the Illini open the season at 11 a.m. on Saturday at home against Kent State.
"AJ Bush will be our starting quarterback," Smith said. "We're excited about what AJ has done. He moved into a leadership role right away."
Smith said the choice became "obvious" as training camp wore on.
“From Day 1 we liked things he did,” Smith said. “It grew throughout. Once we started practicing more in the stadium, he looked pretty comfortable out there.”
Bush, who is 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, will make his first start in Division I football after originally committing to Nebraska then transferring to Iowa Western Community College and eventually backing up Josh Jackson at Virginia Tech last season.
Bush officially joined the team on Aug. 3, but spent the summer with offensive coordinator Rod Smith learning the intricacies of his offense.
“It’s going to mean the world to me," Bush said of his first start. "I’ve been preparing for it. I’ve been thinking about this day for the longest. To finally go out there, strap my shoes up and be that guy, I’m going to be happy. That’s all I can tell you. I’m going to be ready to lead my team."
Bush played in five games for the Hokies last year, completing seven of 11 passes for 99 yards, but immediately fit in at Illini camp.
Rod Smith wanted each of the quarterbacks in the battle — incumbent Cam Thomas, who started four games last year, and freshmen Matthew Robinson, MJ Rivers and Coran Taylor — to show consistency in their play.
Bush did just that, having one bad day in camp, Rod Smith said.
“It was a culmination of things," Rod Smith said. "It wasn’t just one thing. The dude made plays. Through camp he was probably the most consistent that we had. He made the most big plays in camp and the least amount of mistakes. All the things that we were asking our quarterback to do, he kind of displayed through camp.
"I don’t think that was a luck thing. I don’t think it was a fortunate thing. It’s a culmination of, he was here every day during the offseason, on his dime, putting in time. It shows you how hungry the kid is and what he wants."
Both Lovie and Rod Smith lauded Bush for his work not only on the field, but also off the field in learning the offense.
Bush spent time over the summer in Rod Smith's office on "unofficial visits" talking football, describing it like playing the popular video game Madden — a haven for football junkies.
The preparation that Bush has put in since arriving in Champaign has led him to feeling "the most comfortable he's every felt in an offense," a direct result of his preparation.
The one bad day Rod Smith said Bush had can be traced back to the first Thursday of training camp, but Bush said the day was necessary.
“I was trying to be Superman," Bush said. "You learn from it.
“I was having really good days, so I needed to come back to reality and stay focused."
Rod Smith said Bush "very rarely" makes the same mistake twice on a football field, an encouraging sign.
“That is about listening and paying attention to details," Bush said. "That’s one thing I learned is that coach will really get mad at you if you make the same mistake over and over again. That’s one thing I prided myself in is paying attention to the smallest things and not worrying about the big picture; because if you worry about the little things, all that stuff will add up and stack up and get to that moment right here."
For the first time in his Division I career, Bush will take the field as a starting quarterback. He's been waiting for it and so has his family.
There's only one goal left.
“My goal is to win," Bush said. "I want to be a quarterback who wins. Whatever comes along with that comes along with that. I’m going to prepare for that like it’s my last breath. I’m ready for it."
NOTES: Lovie Smith said that Chase McLaughlin will be the team's kicker and Blake Hayes will be the punter. ... After the departure of Donnie Abraham earlier this month as the cornerbacks coach, Miles Smith, Lovie's son, has been promoted to the 10th assistant spot. Lovie said that Miles will work with the nickelbacks and cornerbacks. Miles Smith was a graduate assistant prior to the promotion and Lovie Smith will still assist with cornerbacks. Gil Byrd will still be the defensive passing game coordinator and work with safeties.