Rivers To Transfer
I'm on a flight home from California. We had a connecting flight in Vegas. I'm standing in line, waiting to board, flipping through Twitter. And what do I see? MJ Rivers announcing he's going to transfer. I had planned to write on the plane but didn't know what I was going to write about. Well, now I know what I'm going to write about.
As you might recall, I moved my quarterback concerns to Defcon 2 during the spring game (like, I was live tweeting some Jessie Spano-ish panic). Most every position is setting up well of this massive season ahead - defensive line looks like it's ready to get better, we have plus-depth at running back - but one lags behind the others. The most important one. (Quarterback. Quarterback is what I'm talking about.)
So when the guy who started eight games last season graduates and then the guy who started the other four games announces he's transferring, well, Defcon 1. Press every panic button in your house. As of right now, Illinois is guaranteed to have a freshman starting at quarterback.
Yes, you read that right. Here is the depth chart at QB:
Matt Robinson (rs-FR) / Coran Taylor (rs-FR) / Isaiah Williams (FR)
No sophomores, no juniors, no seniors. The one QB who would be a junior (Cam Thomas) transferred last fall. The one QB who would be a sophomore (MJ Rivers) - the only experienced QB - is announcing a transfer in May. Go find that panic button and press it again. Freshman, freshman, freshman.
Penn State fifth-year transfer QB Tommy Stevens is visiting this week? Roll out every red carpet we own. Tell him he will be escorted into the stadium every Saturday on one of those thrones that four men carry from the four corners. Commission his statue before he arrives on campus.
Man, I just can't get over this. We are heading into the fourth season for Lovie - the season where it's all supposed to fall into place - and we're doing it with three freshmen quarterbacks. THE QUARTERBACK ON OCTOBER 12, 2019 WILL BE A FRESHMAN. I'm in full-on "how do I find the right words to accurately emphasize the panic we should all be experiencing?" mode right now.
Look, I'm not saying Rivers was a lock to start. In the spring game, the first snaps went to Matt Robinson. I think it's accurate to say that Robinson was the "starter" coming out of spring ball. At most of the practices I watched, Robinson got the QB1 snaps. So this isn't Nathan Scheelhaase transferring after his freshman year or anything. There's a reason Tommy Stevens is being brought in for a visit. The coaches know there's no true QB1 right now. Had Rivers been here, the battle would have dragged on well into camp.
But there's something to be said for a sophomore QB with four starts under his belt. Just think back to the South Florida game and the Penn State game. Rivers was five feet too deep (and way too late) on a pass to Ricky Smalling that would have won the South Florida game on the final play. And then he led this offense to a 24-21 lead over Penn State in the third quarter. There's a reason he was the #2 guy last year, there's a reason AJ Bush was benched mid-season and replaced by Rivers (the reason: Rivers was out-playing him in practice), and there was a reason he was the #1 QB on my depth chart. He had the Wet Feet Year and the others have not.
And now one of those dry-footed freshman quarterbacks is going to start the Akron game. And if that QB panics and throws three first half interceptions, he'll be replaced by… a freshman. And if he doesn't cut it, he'll be replaced by… a freshman. Yes, it worked out for Minnesota last year (they were down to a redshirt freshman and a true freshman walkon and made it to a bowl). But it almost never works. Not unless you have a Scheelhaase coming off his redshirt year.
And we don't have that. We have Isaiah Williams, and he might mimic Isiah Williams and be ready to take over by the end of September his true freshman year. But recall that Juice had major growing pains that season and we finished 2-10. This cannot be a 2-10 season. This needs to be a bowl season. This is Year Four.
Thinking out loud here, has there ever been a more important campus visit than Tommy Stevens this week? Is he worth four wins? Yes, I know that there's an 80% chance he's not "transferring to another school" - he's simply "transferring to Mississippi State". He probably didn't announce a transfer to really look anywhere else than the job his old Penn State offensive coordinator (now the head coach at Mississippi State) is offering him. He's almost certainly just taking a courtesy visit to Champaign.
OK, yes, I hear you - my freshman bias is showing. If college players are rated on a 1-10 scale, I mostly expect every freshman to be in the 3's and sophomores to be 5-ish and juniors to leap to 7 and then maybe seniors are a 9. Not every player follows that progression. Some freshmen have "it" (Vontae Davis), some seniors have their worst season their final season (not going the mention names but you're aware of this).
It's just that this is quarterback. QUARTERBACK. Right now we should have a third-year QB ready to take over. Someone recruited in Lovie's first class (2017) who either sat for a year and is a redshirt sophomore or played in 2017 and is a true junior. Someone who had a full year in Rod Smith's offense last year.
But we don't have that. Cam Thomas was Garrick McGee's hand-picked quarterback in that class, and Cam Thomas transferred in September of his first season in Rod Smith's offense. So now we are left with Garrick McGee's hand-picked quarterback in the 2018 class (Coran Taylor), Rod Smith's hand-picked QB in the 2018 class (Matt Robinson), and The One. (Reminder: Isaiah Williams' teammates don't call him "Isaiah" or "Williams". They simply say "hey One".)
And the odds of The One winning the job just went up exponentially. My original position was "Rivers wins the job but Isaiah Williams gets more and more packages as the season goes on", but I think I'm now changing that to "Williams has a real shot of starting the first game. I was so confident that this wouldn't be the case that I will lose a $50 bet (to charity, of course) if Williams takes the first snap of the Akron game. Five months ago I was at "no chance" - now I could honestly see it.
But that discussion is for August. Right now, it's early May, and the experience in our QB room is the few passes Matt Robinson made in garbage time last season (he only appeared in three games - Western Illinois, Penn State, and Purdue, so he kept his redshirt under the four games rule). It's Year Four and the most experience is three games of secondary mop-up duty (he was the third quarterback to enter the WIU game, the second QB to enter the Penn State game, and the third QB to enter the Purdue game) from Matt Robinson. On paper, that's frightening.
So now we need a Hail Mary. We need Tommy Stevens to somehow turn down Mississippi State because he wants to lead Illinois to a bowl. We need Isaiah Williams to be Brock Purdy-good (Iowa State's once-in-a-generation freshman QB last year). We need Matt Robinson to be as good as he looked in those first few practices last August (except he needs to be that good when facing a pass rush). Or we need Coran Taylor to come out of nowhere and declare "hey everyone - did you forget about me?".
This is the year it has to all come together. And for that to happen, one of those four Hail Marys above has to connect. No big deal, right?
(It's a massive, massive deal.)