All positions on a football team are important. All eleven players must play in unison as equals for best results. That said, the quarterback position by necessity must excel and serve a leadership role for true excellence.
Competency, consistency and experience at quarterback probably does more to help a team win than any one other factor, and vice versa. The biggest question on offense for the Fighting Illini this year, as it has been for several years now, is whether the quarterback position can lead us to victories. Without excellence at quarterback, the offense will struggle and wins will be hard to achieve.
Fortunately, there is potential at the position. Fifth year senior Tim Brasic now has a year under his belt as a starter, and he is expected to be much improved this year. Last year he was learning a new system and facing an all-out blitz from opponents who took advantage of weaknesses in the Illini's offensive line and Brasic's own inexperience. Tim showed good running skills avoiding the onslaught of defenders, but he likely became shell-shocked over time.
Hopefully, that experience plus improvements in the offensive line should combine to make the game slow down more for him and allow him to read defenses better, find alternate receivers, and lead the team with confidence. Brasic knows the system much better this time around, and he is more relaxed in making his reads and throwing to the correct receivers. If he can continue this improvement into the regular season, the Illini should be able to move the ball on most anyone.
One hopes Tim Brasic repeats the senior success of a number of other quarterbacks around the country who struggle early in their careers but blossom in their last seasons. Examples such as Brett Basanez at Northwestern last year and Billy Dicken in the first year of Purdue's revival under Joe Tiller give reason for optimism to Illini fandom.
Brasic has only average arm strength and struggles throwing against a strong wind in late fall games. He is also not real tall, making it harder for him to see over the linemen. But Tim believes in himself, and he has proven without doubt to be the best choice for quarterback so far this year. If he can stay healthy and have some early success, he could become increasingly difficult to defend as the season progresses. These are big "ifs" of course, but anything is possible.
The next quarterback in line to succeed Brasic comes to Illinois as its most heralded quarterback recruit since Jeff George. Isiah "Juice" Williams has a cannon for an arm, is a strong runner, is well liked, and is highly intelligent. Playing his high school ball at Chicago Vocational didn't prepare him to start as a raw freshman at a major college, so he has much to learn.
But don't be surprised to see Juice get some playing time in the early nonconference portion of the schedule. He isn't ready yet, but he is too talented to sit. Plus, he needs experience so he can be of value should Brasic go down with injury.
Juice has thrown the ball 80 yards in the air, so it is sometimes difficult for him to make soft tosses on short passes and put air under the ball on timing passes over the linebackers. It will take him some time to learn what to do when, so don't be surprised if some of his passes arrive with too much velocity to be caught. Of course, Illini receivers must also learn to catch his bullets, so it is a two way street.
Juice is especially adept at throwing long passes, and he seems to enjoy probing the middle of the defense, something previous quarterbacks have been unable or unwilling to do. Even though he has scrambling ability, he seems willing to stay in the pocket long enough for longer pass patterns to come open.
Juice learns quickly. He makes mistakes, but he often gets the play right when given a second chance. It will take him a year or more to get the system down pat, but when he does he could be a future star.
Another promising freshman is Eddie McGee out of Washington, D. C. He is competing for the third team job and may have the upper hand at this time. The tallest quarterback on the team at 6'-4", Eddie has a strong arm and decent running skills.
Some compare Eddie to another top quarterback from his school, pro star Byron Leftwich. He appears to learn quickly just like Juice, so it is just a matter of time before he understands the system well enough to show all his talents. Like Juice, he could get early playing time, although it is hoped his eligibility can be preserved for future years as he is a work in progress and is still quite slender. He would benefit greatly from the extra year and could eventually develop into a pro prospect. But he will be thrown in there ready or not if something happens to Brasic and Williams.
Billy Garza is a third year squadman who is intelligent and workmanlike, but he lacks the dynamic athleticism of the two freshmen. Billy showed well in the spring scrimmage and led his 2nd unit to a victory over the 1st unit. So all hope would not be lost if he were in the game. He understands the role much better than the freshmen, but he doesn't have the arm, the size, the speed or the flair of Williams and McGee. He is still in the mix for third team. Walkon Mark Venegoni is also competing and will likely serve an important role of sending hand signals from the sidelines.
Quarterback is by far the most complicated position to learn. Besides learning all the plays and all the hand signals calling in the plays, the quarterback must be able to read all defenses and know how to exploit them. He must also know what every person on the team is doing on every play and know who to go to if his first option is unavailable. And he must know when to throw different types of passes on different receiving routes.
Timing is critical, and he has a different number count going on in his head to tell him when to release the ball on each pass. It can be difficult for experienced quarterbacks to have a full grasp of the system, so expecting a raw freshman to understand it is simply asking the impossible.
One or both freshmen will play. If and when they do, expect a much simplified offense that doesn't require too much too soon from them. Also expect many mistakes, mixed in with occasional excellence. Hopefully, with time and experience the freshmen will produce far more excellence than mistakes, but it is simply too much to expect either to be a starter early in the season unless necessitated by injury.
In the meantime, it is hoped that Tim Brasic will develop the consistency to lead us to numerous scores and victories. A lot rests on his shoulders, so how well he performs will go a long way toward determining our final won-loss record.