CHAMPAIGN — When Tommy DeVito took his visit to Illinois, he saw a familiar face.
In the weight room was Illini quarterback Art Sitkowski, another New Jersey native who had been doing quarterback workouts with DeVito since their prep days.
The two, who are now in a battle for the starting quarterback position this fall, went their separate ways at Syracuse and Rutgers before falling down the depth chart and seeking greener pastures in a transfer to Illinois.
"It's crazy how life works man," Sitkowski said. "Now we're in the same place."
This fall won’t be the first time the two have competed against one another. During high school and in early college offseasons, they would work out under Leon Clarke at William Patterson University in New Jersey every Saturday.
Sitkowski would make an hour-long drive up north each weekend and the two would practice with and go up against each other during workouts or clinics.
"We've known each other for a long time," DeVito said. "Week in and week out being able to push each other even when we're young. So we've seen each other grow and flourish from the time and it's been an awesome relationship."
Now, the two are reconnecting after college stops. They've been some of the leaders of the team during offseason workouts and as players with over four years at the Power Five level are some of the most experienced on the roster.
"I was in a conversation with (offensive coordinator) Barry (Lunney Jr.) without Art or Tommy in the room and Barry was talking about how close those two had become," coach Bret Bielema said. "And then the literally the next day, I had a meeting with (strength coach) Tank (Wright) and he talked about how those two guys were kind of like, field general one and two, just taking control of all the workouts, all the player-led practices and doing all the things together and their voice and their confidence. And that's when I thought we probably had something."
Sitkowski entered the quarterback mix after a pair of offseason surgeries to his left arm and right shoulder forced him to miss the spring. It was a long road to recovery, but he climbed the mountain back to being cleared earlier this summer.
"Just stepping out there on the practice field it's like, 'Holy smokes.'" Sitkowski said. "I couldn't sleep the night before. I was really excited."
He played through the shoulder injury in 2021 for the Illini after transferring the previous offseason. Now he’s 100% and feels healthy going into the 2022 season.
"I definitely feel a lot more confident in my arm," Sitkowski said. "I feel great. I can throw it how I want to. Last year was tough for me. I kind of had to know my limitations in a way, but there's no more limitations. I can just let it rip."
Sitkowski initially lost the starting job to Peters in 2021, but started games for Illinois later in the season. He played a big role in the team’s win over Penn State and came off the bench to help ignite the Illini in an opening win over Nebraska. An injury against the Nittany Lions ended his season early and Bielema said he’s unsure if Peters would have started to end the season had Sitkowski been healthy. He said he considers Sitkowski the returning starter.
DeVito comes off a season where he lost the starting job at Syracuse, being informed of the decision just hours before the team’s week four contest in 2021. He was a headliner recruit as a four-star and a multi-year starter for the Orange, throwing for 2,360 yards in 2019 with 19 touchdowns to just 5 interceptions as a sophomore.
Sitkowski was thrust onto the field early as well, starting as a true freshman for a Rutgers team that went 1-11 in 2018. He also lost his job before entering the portal to compete for the job at Illinois.
Those early struggles have molded both of the Jersey-bred quarterbacks while they take on this competition. It’s also something that’s brought them together.
"We had a talk yesterday about and it's kind of fresh in my mind," DeVito said. "Adversity is what football is all about. Whether it's on the field, you need to look at the best team in the country. Whoever you call, even the NFL, anything. There's always going to be ups and downs in the game. It's about staying level; it's about staying in the middle and how you grow from adversity and how you react to it."
There is also an added sense of urgency for DeVito, who is entering his final college season. Sitkowski will have one year left after 2022. DeVito has a chance to finish his career strong and cement himself as a pro prospect. Peters got an undrafted free agent training camp deal with the Los Angeles Chargers after a strong finish to the season.
"It's always in the back of your head," DeVito said. "On the first day, I was like, wow, this is my last first day of college fall camp.
"But it's there; it's not something you think about because then all of a sudden you're gonna be thinking in fear and all that other stuff. But you’ve just got to enjoy it. I'm blessed and thankful for the opportunity to be a part of this team. I'm very excited to see where this team goes and to be able to help take them there."
Each will continue the competition and bonding with each other as they try to take the starting quarterback job and take an Illinois passing offense that’s struggled to new heights.
"It's funny how people's paths cross and you never know when you're going to be back with somebody," DeVito said. "You never burn any bridges. We've always had a good relationship and it's only gotten stronger now."
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Illinois quarterback Artur Sitkowski listens to head coach Bret Bielema during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Nebraska on Aug. 28, 2021, in Champaign, Ill. Illinois won 30-22.