CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) - Senior transfer AJ Bush was named starting quarterback for Illinois on Monday, beating out last year’s starter and a promising true freshman.
Less than a week before the season opener at home against Kent State, Illini coach Lovie Smith said he chose Bush primarily because of his work on the practice field - and his leadership skills.
“I was excited about what AJ did on the practice field,” Smith said. “He showed us he was a leader right away, both on the field and in the classroom.”
Bush beat out Cam Thomas, last year’s starter, and Matt Robinson, a promising three-star freshman recruit.
“It became kind of obvious early on that AJ was the guy,” Smith said. “Now we have a tremendous competition for the second and third spots.”
The 6-4, 225-pound Bush transferred to Illinois from Virginia Tech, where he played in five games last year, completing seven of 11 passes for 99 yards and one touchdown. He previously played for Iowa Western Community College.
“I’m just going to embrace this moment,” Bush said. “I’ve been preparing and praying for this moment for a long time. It’s really hard to explain. I’ve been dreaming of this.”
Offensive coordinator Rod Smith praised Bush’s throwing arm and his speed on the field. He also said Bush was a threat during broken plays, something the lackluster Illini offense could use.
“He has that great ability to run, and that’s so important,” Rod Smith said.
Thomas, a sophomore, played in four games last season, and started two. He was only the third true freshman in Illinois history to make multiple starts at quarterback, joining Juice Williams in 2006 and Kurt Kittner in 1998. Thomas completed 28 of 66 passes for 375 yards, while rushing for 233 yards and one touchdown on 52 carries.
Robinson impressed the coaches in practice, but “he hit that freshman wall and made some mistakes,” Rod Smith said. “That’s going to happen to freshmen, but what impressed me was how he rebounded and learned from those mistakes.”
Bush said he had few problems adjusting to Rod Smith’s offense.
“Coach (Rod) Smith is a special man,” Bush said. “We have similar personalities, I think. We both know what needs to be done and how to do it.”
Bush joked that he is so excited to take the field on Saturday that “I might have to knock myself out Friday night just to get some sleep.”
Lovie Smith lauded Bush’s leadership skills when it comes to his younger backups, especially considering Illinois is still among the youngest teams in Division I.
“He’s someone the younger players look up to, on the field and off,” Smith said. “From day one, we liked the things he did and how he did them. Our younger quarterbacks see how he goes about doing the job, which will benefit them in the years to come as they step into this role.”
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