CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Illinois football fans shouldn’t expect to hear a starting quarterback announcement this spring.
As the Illini began its first spring practice season today under first-year head coach Bret Bielema, the program has four players returning who started a game from behind center in the previous season.
Less than 24 hours prior to the start of spring practices, Illinois offensive coordinator Tony Petersen confirmed he wouldn’t have a problem if the starting quarterback battle between returning senior Brandon Peters and redshirt freshman Isaiah Williams dragged on into fall camp that will start in August.
“I’m okay with it going into fall camp. That doesn’t bother me at all,” Petersen said. “At the same point, if somebody has walked away from spring practice and somebody has absolutely earned that job, then that’s great. You know who your starting quarterback is.”
Illinois started four quarterbacks in the first four games of last season, the first time the Illini had started four quarterbacks in a single season since the program’s starters records began in 1975.
Matt Robinson, a third-year sophomore, started the home opener against Purdue but was hurt on the second drive. Coran Taylor, who was 17 of 29 for 273 passing yards with two touchdowns and four turnovers against Purdue last season, made his first career start against Minnesota the following week and struggled to a 6 of 17 outing for just 106 yards and a touchdown.
Today marks the first day of spring football practice for Illinois as new head coach Bret Bielema and his staff look to guide the Illini through the first of 15 sessions culminating in the program’s second spring game since 2015.
The spring game will kick off at 7 p.m. CT on Monday, April 19 in what the Illini officials are referring to as ‘Monday Night Football’ as the game will air live on Big Ten Network.
Petersen, who also works primarily with the quarterback position group, hinted Monday the obvious Monday, which is the battle for practice reps with a projected starting offensive line that returns all but one starter (Kendrick Green) will come down to Peters and Williams.
“This will be about my sixth or seventh offense that I’ve learned,” Peters said in December. “(Petersen has) developed some pretty good guys at the quarterback position. He’s done great things at various different universities. I think he brings a scheme that can really fit our style.”
Peters nearly immediately won the starting quarterback job in 2019 after arriving on campus in fall camp as a graduate transfer from Michigan and promptly led Illinois to a 6-7 record and its first bowl invitation in five years.
Peters has led Illinois to a 7-7 record when he starts and is available into the fourth quarter during his two seasons at Illinois. When Peters does not start or has been unable to play into the fourth quarter, Illinois is 1-6.
After Peters informed Bielema he’d like to return for his sixth season of college football and informed the public of his decision four days after Christmas, Peters acknowledged the new Illini coach told him he’d be forced to compete for his starting job before the 2021 season.
“(Bielema) was very upfront and honest with me,” said Peters. “He said, ‘You’re going to have to compete. Nothing is ever certain.’ Again, my mindset is go in there and compete, control what I can control.”
This spring and fall camp will represent the first time Peters will be forced into a quarterback competition with Williams, highest ranked quarterback recruit since Isiah "Juice" Williams signed with the Illini in 2006.
“There’s been three, four times where I’ve had to go and compete for a job. Most of the time I haven’t won them,” Peters said in December. “I came to Illinois, and I was successful. I don’t want to just jump ship when things are uncertain, when there’s some adversity. ... I’m going to give it a chance.”
In five games last season, Peters, who was inactive for three games after testing positive for the coronavirus days before the home opener against Purdue, finished 39 of 80 passing (48.7 percent) for 429 yards and three touchdowns on the season and no interceptions.
“[Peters] has got God-given, NFL type of talent,” Petersen said. “(He’s) 6-4, he’s 220 pounds, he can run pretty well, he’s got a strong arm, quick release. We’ve just got to keep working on him being that natural leader type of guy but he’s getting better everyday.”
Williams, who was inactive for that 31-24 loss to Purdue in the second week of the season due to COVID-19 contact tracing protocols, completed 26 for 63 passes (41.3 percent) for 393 yards, four touchdowns through the air on the season with no interceptions.
However, it was Williams’ ability to affect an offense with his feet that gave the Illinois offense a new dynamic when Peters was out last season. Williams, a 5-foot-10 signal caller, finished the 2020 season No. 10 on the all-time school list in career rushing yards by a quarterback with 405 rushing yards. In his first career start at Rutgers, Williams set the Illinois single-game rushing record by a quarterback with 192 yards in a 23-20 win on Nov. 14.
Admittedly, Petersen clearly had to acknowledge Monday that the skill sets of Peters are Williams are “totally the opposite”.
“He’s a shorter quarterback, but he can throw it, very athletic, probably one of the more athletic guys on our team (who) can run,” Petersen said. “I’ve always been a guy, whoever the quarterback ends up being, that’s kind of the way your offense has to evolve a little bit in certain situations. Both of those guys have the ability to run the system easily. It can be tweaked around either guy.”