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Illinois football: 4 quarterbacks and one big decision, Illini's fall camp centered around starting signal caller

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Another preseason, another Illinois quarterback battle.

This time, coaches said, it's different. In fairness, it is.

Unlike recent seasons Illinois entered with questions at quarterback, when it felt like the selection would be made almost by default, this year the options seem legitimate. Injuries and poor play caused a multitude of midseason switches behind center during Lovie Smith's first three seasons in Champaign.

This competition seems less problematic and more promising.

Four quarterbacks are vying for the starting job this season, but realistically it will come down to hotshot freshman Isaiah Williams or experienced Michigan transfer Brandon Peters.

"If you're answering 'Who's the quarterback?' every year, I don't think that's a good situation," Smith said Tuesday at Illinois media day. "Hopefully in time, like other things as we solidify our program, that won't be the case.

"At the same time, as you're getting that position right, it's good to have competition and options in that room."

Last year senior graduate transfer AJ Bush Jr. established himself early in camp as the starter after transfers had left the Illini with only one scholarship quarterback that spring — Cam Thomas, who also wound up leaving the program in September. Bush, a dynamic runner but inconsistent passer, started nine games. Freshman M.J. Rivers II, who entered the NCAA transfer portal in May, started the other three.

The 2017 season was an unsuccessful mixed bag of Jeff George Jr., Chayce Crouch and Thomas. The last time Illinois headed into a season with a returning starting quarterback was 2016, and even that season, Wes Lunt struggled with injuries.

The repetitive uncertainty is one of the biggest issues that has stunted Illinois' progress under Smith.

Smith sees this preseason as a win-win.

"We're in a pretty good situation right now," he said.

He laid out the benefits of a scenario in which Peters, who has two seasons of eligibility remaining, becomes the starter.

"We made a decision to bring quarterbacks in," Smith said. "Being able to get a guy who has played football before, that's the ideal situation to have in the quarterback position. Brandon is calm. He doesn't get too worked up about things that may not go his way or too hyped up when things really go his way.

"To show a young, talented future player in Isaiah Williams how to do them, that's the ideal quarterback room: a guy who's done it and another guy who's coming up with a mentor and teacher at a pace they should go."

Offensive coordinator Rod Smith said he'll take his time to name the starter.

"I'm in no hurry," he said. "Get as much time as we can to let it play itself out. I'm not a big believer you need to name your quarterback right now. You've got to have three guys you can win with at any moment's time."

Redshirt freshmen Matt Robinson and Coran Taylor are also competing for the job.

Peters and Williams seem like upgrades from the last two seasons. Their credentials say they are.

Peters was a four-star recruit out of high school in Indiana in 2016 and signed with Michigan. After a redshirt season, he started four games in 2017, but a concussion sidelined him and then he fell down the depth chart as transfer Shea Patterson took over as the Wolverines quarterback.

"It was my best opportunity," he said of transferring to Illinois. "I had some other interest from MAC schools. I felt like Illinois was a good stage to come to and compete."

Williams was a four-star recruit out of Trinity Catholic in St. Louis, where Illini assistant Cory Patterson was his coach through 2017. He fell in love with Illinois early.

And, yes, he does know that other Isiah Williams, aka "Juice," who played quarterback for Illinois under Ron Zook from 2006 to '09.

"We talked numerous times," Williams said. "It's pretty cool. He's a great guy. I looked at a little bit of his film. He's a great person to look up to."

Lovie Smith sees Williams blossoming into a starter at some point.

"His reputation is he's a running quarterback," Smith said. "Things you don't know about him: He can pass the football, his football intellect, knowing how to navigate when you're a hotshot recruit coming in.

"Every time I talk to Isaiah, it seems like he impresses you in some type of way. It's going to be fun watching him grow."

Hopefully for Illinois' sake, he grows into a multiyear starter.

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