Last month, Illinois Athletic Director Josh Whitman sat at a long, oval table surrounded by assorted media and talked about the school year that was.
Among the topics, of course, was the direction of the two revenue sports: Men's basketball and football. Whitman has seen the football team rebuild the foundation from the ground up (both literally and figuratively, with the near-completion of the Henry Dale and Betty Smith Football Performance Center). Football, he said, was at the starting line.
For three years under head coach Lovie Smith, the Illini have had to play catch-up, and the on-field performance was commensurate with what you would expect after throwing freshmen and sophomores on the field in the Big Ten and watching them grow.
Now juniors, the Illini appear ready to run. How fast they move depends largely on the most important position on the field for any team: Quarterback.
Smith went with a stop-gap last season in graduate transfer AJ Bush Jr., who had ended up splitting time with true freshman M.J. Rivers II after injuries cost Bush snaps. When fall camp opens on Aug. 2, neither Bush (graduation) nor Rivers (transfer) will be around to defend the job.
Illinois went after almost anyone in the transfer portal this offseason with a QB listed after their name. They hosted former Penn State grad transfer Tommy Stevens, who landed at Mississippi State. For a moment, it looked like USC grad transfer Matt Fink was the answer. He ended up sticking around in Southern California. Eventually, Illinois found a match in former Michigan quarterback Brandon Peters, who verbally committed to the Illini last month and has two years of eligibility left.
Peters may not be a perfect fit in offensive coordinator Rod Smith's system that thrives with dual-threat quarterbacks who can run and throw. By all accounts, Peters has a strong arm and can run, but isn't a runner. Neither was Rivers, and he sustained. Peters' big boon is that he's started actual college football games — Big Ten games and bowl games. Experience talks.
He's a 6-foot-5, 230-pounder who started four games in 2017 for the Wolverines and appeared in five games in 2018. He was 58-of-110 during his time at Michigan, throwing for 680 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions.
His largest threat to the starter's throne on Aug. 31 when Akron comes to town might be true freshman Isaiah Williams, a four-star recruit out of Trinity Catholic in St. Louis. He was the top-rated prospect in the state and had offers from all the big boys in the country: Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Florida State, LSU, you name it. Even if they all didn't see him as a quarterback, he was coveted.
Instead, he chose to bring his 5-foot-10, 170-pound frame to Champaign, where he's the highest-rated quarterback recruit since a guy named Isiah "Juice" Williams in 2006. Isaiah Williams will have every chance to walk into Memorial Stadium on the first Saturday of the college football season as the team's starting quarterback.
Redshirt freshman Matt Robinson and Coran Taylor will get their share of quarterback reps in training camp, too. No avenue seems to be closed.
If Williams wins the job, it means he's beat out three other guys, including an experienced guy in Peters who was Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh's first quarterback recruit. Peters is no slouch. He came out of high school as a four-star recruit and rated as the No. 1 player in Indiana in the Class of 2016, according to 247Sports.
Both have to pick up Rod Smith's system in relatively short time, and the loser of the job out of camp won't fade away. They'll be nipping on the heels of the starter all season long.
All of the options, though, will have weapons. Reggie Corbin highlights a deep stable of running backs able to ease the pressure on the quarterback. The receiver group has depth and talent, especially after landing a pair of USC grad transfers in Josh Imatorbhebhe and Trevon Sidney. They'll complement junior Ricky Smalling, who had a stellar freshman year, and Trenard Davis, who was consistent last year.
The offensive line is top-heavy, but not deep. Avoiding injuries along that front is key to keeping the quarterbacks protected. If the defense takes a leap, as the players and coaching staff think, no quarterback will be saddled with the responsibility of throwing the ball all over the yard and playing from behind, like the 63-0 blowout home loss to Iowa; or required to go yard-for-yard with an offense, like a Week 3 loss at Solider Field to South Florida.
But it all comes back to the quarterback. Just how fast the Illini can break out of the blocks at the starting line depends on the play at the game's most important position.