CHAMPAIGN — When the Illinois football team opened spring practice last year, offensive coordinator Rod Smith had just one scholarship quarterback, Cam Thomas, available.
By the time fall camp rolled around last August, M.J. Rivers II, Matt Robinson and Coran Taylor joined the fold as freshmen and graduate transfer AJ Bush Jr. arrived in Champaign and took control of the starting position.
By the time the Illini had their first of 15 spring practices on Tuesday, Bush had graduated and Thomas left the program. Still, Rivers, Robinson and Taylor remain with the program and in spring practices. None of the three were in spring practices last season.
“We’ve got more competition in the room, which is good," Smith said. "I’m always an advocate of that. It’s going to make each person push each other and once again create competition there. I like it because now I get to harp at different guys and not just one guy like I did last year."
Rivers, Robinson and Taylor know the system and are very much candidates, along with Williams, to seize control of the starting gig before the season rolls around. There's a comfort level for all three, having experience in Smith's system.
“It does help when you have more experience back there," Illinois head coach Lovie Smith said. "We have some guys who are going through some things for the first time, but have played a little bit of football. It’s about competition and the more guys you can get, who truly have a chance to compete, has to make the room that much better.
“How our season goes, of course a lot of it starts with the quarterback room. We have some guys, M.J. Rivers, Matt Robinson, Coran Taylor, who all feel like they can be the quarterback for the University of Illinois and we’re going to give them the chance to prove it."
Rivers played in eight games last season with three starts. He's a 6-foot-4, 215-pound sophomore from Frisco, Texas. He's put on 15 pounds since arriving in Champaign prior to last season. His eight appearances were a mix of filling in when Bush was injured and spelling Bush when he struggled, particularly in a loss at Wisconsin. In total he three for 547 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions.
“We’re all just getting more comfortable because we have a year under our belt of knowing the system, knowing how coach Rob wants it to be coached and wants it to be ran," Rivers said. "It’s just getting more comfortable and getting more of an understand of it and being able to be him out there on the field."
Robinson played in three games and Taylor didn't play. Both Robinson and Taylor are redshirt freshmen. Robinson is 6-1 from San Juan Capistrano, Calif. and said he has increased his speed over the offseason. Taylor is from Peoria Central and is a 6-2, 205-pounder.
“I like competing and trying to do the best I can, just take care of business and do the best I can each day," Robinson said.
Both Lovie and Rod Smith preached the desire to see consistency and production from their quarterbacks. They want their guys to make the right read, the right decision and be a good enough athlete to work in a spread offense with run-pass options.
There were some mistakes on Tuesday, typical mistakes of an early spring practice. Rod Smith said there were some passes they would like to have back, but a new set of footballs on a chilly morning didn't help matters. Still, there was a baseline level of understanding.
“I just like the fact that they’re probably more comfortable in their own skin than they were just because it’s not new," Rod Smith said. "There’s some new tweaks that we’re looking at but the overall philosophy of the offense, the scheme of what we’re doing is not new to them. The terminology, setting protections, that’s not new."
Rod Smith wants three quarterbacks ready to go in the case of injuries. Lovie Smith mentioned how the depth in the program is shaping out as the recruiting classes continue to stack on one another as he enters his fourth season in charge. The drop off from the starters to the backups is becoming less dramatic, they hope.
Then there's the matter of Williams, one of Lovie Smith's highest rated recruits. Is it possible for a true freshman to step on campus and control the starting quarterback job? Yes, and Rod Smith has been in that situation before.
“It depends on how good he is," Rod Smith said. "It depends on what the state of your program is for him taking over. Obviously how quick can someone adjust, can they adapt to the college game? It’s different. It’s different taking snaps from high school to college and even some of the best players will tell you that.
"To me, it depends on the individual, to be honest with you. As quick as he can grasp it, as quick as he can adjust to the college game. It’s all about consistency: Who makes the best reads, who’s the most consistent and who makes sound decisions and takes care of the football? That’s what we’re looking for."
For now, the three scholarship quarterbacks on campus are working on the fundamentals.
"Three young players that we have that are all fighting," Lovie Smith said. "We have, of course, one of my most highly recruited players coming in, the guys realize that. The guys that are here right now, it’s an opportunity for them to step their game up and take advantage of great coaching that you can get in the spring. We’re not gameplanning. We’re not playing an opponent. This is daily. You have plenty of time to hone your skills. That’s what we’re doing."