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‘No country club’: Illinois football team looking for competition at quarterback

March 29, 2018

CHAMPAIGN — It’s way too early to say how the quarterback competition will play out for Lovie Smith’s 2018 Illini football team.

Even though Tuesday was the seventh practice this spring, the competition won’t really heat up until August when the number of scholarship quarterbacks will jump from one to five.

For now it’s Cam Thomas, the sophomore-to-be who is getting most of the reps and a crash course learning the offense being installed by new coordinator Rod Smith.

But in August, he’ll be joined in a crowded quarterback room that will include incoming freshmen Coran Taylor from Peoria, M.J. Rivers from Frisco, Texas, Matt Robinson from San Juan Capistrano, Calif., as well as graduate transfer A.J. Bush from Virginia Tech.

Rod Smith said he counts on competition within the roster to help generate improvement, so he probably can’t wait for the additional quarterback prospects to begin arriving this summer.

In the meantime, though, Cam Thomas has passed some early tests.

“We have to keep working but he’s very willing,” Rod Smith said after practice on Tuesday. “Cam is a talented young man. We can do what we need to do with Cam. He just has to keep working to get better, keep developing and polish off some things.

“He’s an athletic kid. He has the ability to make any throw, arm-strength wise, so that’s good. We have to continue to keep working on his timing and accuracy. But that’s not just him. That’s every quarterback.

“And the more he gets comfortable with our wideouts and our wideouts get comfortable with him, that timing will get better as well.”

Rod Smith said the chemistry between Thomas and the wide receivers is still a work in progress.

“It’s not just a one-way street,” he said. “To me the quarterback and the wideouts have to co-exist with each other from a timing standpoint and that’s why these (spring) reps are invaluable.

“You learn by making mistakes, in my opinion. When you make mistakes, we correct them and go back. The key is that you don’t make the same mistake twice.”

Rod Smith said Thomas is beginning to spot mistakes on his own and realize a correction is needed. “That means he’s starting to pick some things up,” he said.

What Rod Smith looks forward to is having five scholarship quarterbacks pushing each other.

“I don’t want anyone feeling comfortable in there,” he said. “I don’t want them looking over their shoulders but I don’t want them thinking they’re in a country club either.

“They will have to earn their stripes every day and if they don’t, someone else will earn it. I didn’t recruit anybody to come in and be a backup. I told these guys, don’t you plan to be a backup. Everyone is planning to be a starter and you work your tails off to be a starter and the coaching staff will decide where we go from there.”

By that time, the ultimate decision will fall to Rod Smith. The competition once training camp begins should be intense.

“You need competition at the position,” Rod Smith said. “You need competition and talent. Not numbers, but talent. That’s what will bring it out and that will be coming.”

So who has impressed the offensive coordinator thus far in spring practice?

“(Wide receiver) Mikey Dudek has been doing some good things,” he said. “I like him. (Running backs) Ra’Von Bonner and Reggie Corbin have done some really nice things. I’m excited about those guys moving forward.”

NOTE: Former Illini running back Howard Griffith, who now works at the Big Ten Network, was a visitor at practice Tuesday as the team dodged the rain by moving to the indoor facility.