CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Brandon Peters did everything you would expect from a third-year starting quarterback in a spring game.
The 23-year-old signal caller, who is returning to Illinois for his sixth season of college football, had a relatively easy night carving up the Illini backup defense for 291 yards in the air. Peters completed 12 of 18 passes and did exactly what his new head coach and new offensive coordinator have preached throughout this spring season by protecting the football.
“BP has got exceptional arm talent (and) a very accurate guy with the ball who has been able to show that repeatedly for 13 practices now,” Illinois first-year head coach Bret Bielema said. “Tonight is a night where I thought he took care of the ball (and) had good ball placement.”
In the first televised debut of Illinois football under Bielema, the Illini gave its first showcase of its program’s new era in front of a crowd of several thousand fans for the first time in over a year. The Illini showed an offense with the quarterback more under center and 3-4 defensive scheme with five players at or near the line-of-scrimmage on every snap.
Against the second-string defense, Peters led the Illini offense to touchdowns in five of the first six drives and had several long pitch-and-catch plays with a developing group of wide receivers and tight ends.
After a quarterback sneak for the first touchdown, Peters hit Khmari Thompson in perfect stride for a 29-yard scoring strike. Peters, who says he’s learning his sixth different also utilized the tight end position with Daniel Barker and Luke Ford as a safety valve after making his deep drops from under center.
Peters, who has led Illinois to a 7-7 record when he starts and is available into the fourth quarter since transferring from a pro style offense at Michigan, did everything on the field he needed to show offensive coordinator Tony Petersen to prove he wants to be a three-year starter in Champaign.
“BP is learning how to manage the game a little more effectively than he was before these first 13 practices in week one,” Bielema said.
Peters announced his return to Illinois and another season of college football just eight days after Bielema was named the program’s new head coach replacing Lovie Smith.
After the completion of the spring game, Bielema was asked if he wanted to name a starting quarterback but declined to do so. However, in the midst of his answer to that question, Bielema mentioned how “obviously, Brandon continues to be impressive”.
Barker finished the first half with 27 yards on two catches but Ford, who has had three catches in two years since transferring from Georgia, finished Monday night with 52 yards on three catches in the first 30 minutes of action. Ford, who finished with 88 yards and a touchdown, showed off a one-handed scoring catch on Big Ten Network in the third quarter.
“I appreciate Luke’s effort and just in this short time I’ve been around him, I’ve seen his maturity level take a big step forward,” Bielema said. “I think he’s concentrating on what’s important now and so he’s really bought in.”
Isaiah Williams, Peters’ completion for the starting job and for first-team reps during this spring practice season, struggled with the second-string offense against the first-team defense in the first half. Williams was just 2 of 10 for 30 yards and two sacks in the first 30 minutes of action before Bielema switched the highly-recruited quarterback to the first-team offensive unit.
In the second half of action, Williams got a significant number of first-team reps in the third quarter and led a touchdown drive that ended with a 5-yard scoring dive from tailback Chase Brown.
Williams ended the night with just one quality throw, a 20-yard pass to Ford, with the first-string offense but didn’t showcase any of the ability that has led him to be the highest ranked quarterback recruit since Isiah “Juice” Williams in 2006.
Illinois has two more practices this week to complete its spring season and Bielema said Monday night he’ll take the summer to evaluate his offensive leader under center.
“With Isaiah, I was very pleased with what he was able to do once he got behind that (first-team) offensive line,” Bielema said. “After we get done with 15 practices, we’ll take a deep breath and see where we’re at.”