CHAMPAIGN — AJ Bush Jr. knew he didn't have a lot of time to complete his mission when he arrived in Champaign.
He understood that to find success as a fifth-year senior quarterback, he first needed to ingratiate himself quickly with his new Illinois teammates -- even though NCAA rules didn't permit him to practice with them and some of them had played together for years.
Complicating matters, he couldn't live in the dorms and players who lived off campus already had roommates. He figured signing a short-term lease wasn't the smartest idea, so he sublet an apartment within walking distance of campus.
Bush, 22, arrived at Illinois on May 19, a day after he graduated from Virginia Tech, and paid his own way in Champaign until he could officially join the team on scholarship on Aug. 3.
He had 28 days to cram for the starting role.
"I knew I had to be on top of my game," he told the Tribune. "I didn't want to leave any doubt that I wanted to be here."
Bush threw with his future teammates outside of practice whenever he could. He talked to them about the playbook. It seemed he stopped by the coaches' offices as much as the coaches did, to pick their brains, make his face known and show his dedication.
Illinois is Bush's fourth college program in five years. The winding path began at Nebraska and included transfers to Iowa Western Community College and Virginia Tech.
But this is different. This is his final stop.
"I saw this as a great opportunity," he said. "They want to win, and they knew I want to win. That was good for the relationship. There was a lot of team bonding. They welcomed me with open arms."
Bush impressed coaches and teammates in preseason camp, and he officially was named the starter four days before the Week 1 comeback victory against Kent State. The Illini hope for a more solid start-to-finish win Saturday at Memorial Stadium against Western Illinois.
Bush was considered a strong fit for coordinator Rod Smith's offense because of his dual-threat abilities, and he rushed for 139 yards on 21 carries in his debut and added 190 yards on 13-of-23 passing.
The Illini are counting on Bush to spark an offense that was among the most anemic in the nation last season and to add pizzazz to a position that has been marked by instability and ineffectiveness in recent years.
Illinois showed its intent to create fireworks on the first play against Kent State, a bomb to Ricky Smalling that narrowly missed.
Bush beat out four other quarterbacks vying for the job. Rod Smith said Bush had only one bad day in camp.
"The dude made plays," Smith said before the season. "All the things we asked our quarterbacks to do, he displayed in camp. That wasn't a luck thing. He was here every day during the offseason, on his dime, putting in time. It shows you how hungry he is."
When the Illini trailed Kent State 17-3 at halftime, Bush said his calm-and-collected demeanor didn't change.
"I was cool," he said. He simply told his teammates and coach Lovie Smith he knew they would win.
"I liked how he ran the show," Lovie Smith said. "It's been awhile since AJ played. He's a tough guy. I buy in to AJ Bush. We needed to come back strong, and he led us."
Bush said he couldn't think of a time in his life when he was rattled. Not when, after being a three-star recruit out of Norcross, Ga., he landed at Nebraska. Not when he didn't see a lick of playing time in two years there and saw a coaching regime change. Not when he opted to play at a community college rather than lose a year sitting out as an FBS transfer. Not when he was relegated to backup duty at Virginia Tech last season, appearing in five games.
"I never worry," he said. "Everyone has something in life. I keep my faith with the man upstairs. Any opportunity he gives me, I'm going to go at it full speed. I'm always going to be motivated."
He recalled joining a different pee-wee team as a fourth-grader than his classmates, who called him "traitor" at school. He came home and told his mother, "I understand they're upset that I left (the team)."
"I always had perspective," Bush said.
Even when he transferred to Iowa Western, a brief window of opportunity didn't faze him. He arrived the day before the first game of the 2016 season and wound up playing in 10 games.
"I was nervous. You bring in a quarterback that late, you don't know how it's going to go," Iowa Western coach Scott Strohmeier said. "(Other quarterbacks) have their friends and timing down. (He) did a really good job. He gets along with people. He just came in and really wanted a chance to play, and he didn't complain about playing time and went about his business."
Bush said he draws inspiration from Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who found little success at Florida before transferring to a junior college and finally to Auburn, where he won the Heisman Trophy and a national title in 2010.
"He had one great year and was off to his journey," Bush said.
This one final season of college football could be a defining -- and long-coming -- one for Bush. But he's not stressed about it. He said he's confident about how it will turn out.
"I know this is what I wanted to do," he said. "I know I'm good enough to do it and I'm capable of doing it. Why not keep trying? You don't always get the rewards right away. If it's something you want to do, you don't give up."