CHAMPAIGN — AJ Bush reared his left arm back and fired a pass down the left sideline to Mike Dudek, who left his feet and hauled in the ball just in-bounds.
A few plays later, Bush hurled a ball deep down the right sideline to Justice Williams, who out-jumped his defender to make the catch.
It was the first the public had seen of Bush, a blueshirt graduate transfer from Virginia Tech. Technically, Bush, who is listed at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, wasn't a part of the roster until camp opened at 3 p.m. Friday at the Campus and Recreation Fields in Champaign.
“He did some good stuff for his first time and made some big plays at times, he made some plays that we have to get corrected — pretty typical,"offensive coordinator Rod Smith said. "You can tell he’s a veteran type of kid and I thought he handled himself pretty well."
The starting quarterback is an open competition, Illinois head coach Lovie Smith said. Bush is competing with sophomore Cam Thomas, who played in four games last season, and freshmen Coran Taylor, M.J. Rivers and Matthew Robinson.
Cam Miller and Drake Davis, both non-scholarship players, also took reps at quarterback at Illinois' first practice on Friday.
“He has a lot of good qualities," Lovie Smtih said of Bush. "He’s big strong, he’s athletic and he can throw the ball, but we think he has a lot of good leadership skills, too.
“You see that the guys trust him. They haven’t been around him a long period of time. When you have an older player, too, that’s always good when you have a lot of young players."
Bush has been around all summer, though he couldn't participate in any team activities. He picked Rod Smith's brain at every chance, using study sessions in Smith's office.
“He was in my office everyday, all summer long. He’s allowed to do that because that’s an unofficial visit, right? He can do that," Rod Smith said. "If he wanted to come in, that’s on his dime and on him. That tells you how committed the young man is. He couldn’t get to school until just recently, but he spent all summer, on his own dime, up here, studying our offense, every day in the office with me."
Bush said he was a sponge around Smith, who he reveres for his history with the run-pass option.
In fact Smith, who recruited Bush out of high school, was a key reason Bush elected to use his final year of eligibility at Illinois.
“A lot of things sold me about Illinois. With Rod Smith coming in, that was the biggest factor, honestly," Bush said. "He really helped my decision because of his pedigree — the guys he coached, his past and all that stuff. Him and (Arizona head coach) Rich (Rodriguez) kind of invented the (run-pass option). I did it at Virginia Tech, so why not learn from the master?"
In the summer, Bush kept his arm loose, throwing in non-team activities.
Bush, now 22 years old, originally committed to Nebraska out of high school, but after Bo Pelini was ousted, Bush transferred to a junior college before landing at Virginia Tech.
Rod Smith doesn't see Bush's bouncing around as an indictment of Bush the player, but rather the timing and opportunities he was presented.
“I see it the same way," Bush said. "You know quarterback, it’s only one person. If you’re second string receiver or second string lineman, you’re going to play. It’s different. It’s a privileged position. That’s why when you get it, you can’t let it go."
Bush has seen opportunities come and go to be the starting quarterback. He knows just how to handle the open competition.
“I’m approaching it like I’m hungry," he said. "I’ve been wanting this my whole career, so why not approach it the way I should? Paying attention to detail and focusing on the little things."
Thomas, who started two games at quarterbacks, is no stranger to splitting reps in practice. He did it last year with Jeff George Jr. and Chayce Crouch.
In spring practices, Thomas was the lone scholarship quarterback on hand, and got hands-on training with Rod Smith.
Splitting reps leads him to increase his game, Thomas said.
"I don’t necessarily have a problem with it," he said. "I know that every time I take a rep, I have to make the most of it and I’ve got to step up and show what I can do."
The Illini will continue splitting reps at quarterback, and neither Rod Smith nor Lovie Smith set a timetable as to when they would zero in on certain quarterbacks.
“We’re going to let the guys compete," Lovie Smith said. "Most players just want an opportunity to prove exactly who they are. For us, early on we’re going to try to get a look at everyone. Eventually, we’re going to have to hone it in for a few guys. What I’ve found, you let guys play. They kind of tell you who should start, who should get reps and that’s where we’re going to do."
NOTES: Lovie Smith will leave after Saturday's practice to get to Canton, Ohio for former Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher's induction in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Smith coached Urlacher in Chicago. ... Offensive lineman Alex Palczewski was at right tackle after starting the final 11 games of last season at guard. ... Kendrick Green was with the first unit at left guard. Vederian Lowe was the first unit left tackle, Doug Kremer was center and Nick Allegretti was right guard. ... Appalachian State transfer receiver Shaedon Meadors suffered an injury and will be on medical scholarship this season. Lovie Smtih said Meadors would not play this year. ... Former Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley running back Mitch McNutt, who was a preferred walk-on, told Lovie Smith's staff that he would be leaving the program.