Jeremy Werner

The back-up plan

Chayce Crouch looks to get up to speed, secure backup spot to Illini quarterback Wes Lunt and hold off freshmen

RANTOUL, Ill. - Chayce Crouch's performance during Saturday's scrimmage was shaky, to put it mildly. The Illinois redshirt freshman quarterback completed 3 of 16 passes, one observer logged, during the Illini's two-plus hour scrimmage at Memorial Stadium.

Growing pains are expected for a second-year quarterback who was the No. 4 quarterback on the depth chart last season. After all, Crouch received mostly just scout team reps behind starter Wes Lunt, primary backup (and eventual  starter) Reilly O'Toole and talented No. 3 Aaron Bailey.

But with both O'Toole (graduation) and Bailey (transferred to Northern Iowa) out of the picture, there's an urgency to get Crouch up to speed now that he's the primary back up to the talented but injury-prone Lunt.

The key for Crouch is learning from his mistakes and limiting them in the future. Crouch showed that ability by bouncing back from Saturday's wobbly scrimmage with one of his best and most accurate performances of training camp on Tuesday.

“He’s getting more and more comfortable," Illinois quarterbacks coach Ryan Cubit said. "With Chayce, there were a lot of things from the scrimmage that we had to take and really learn from. The whole goal is we’ve got a week right now. This is the week we’ve got to step it up to a whole ‘nother level. (Tuesday), he did. He made a stride (Tuesday). There’s a couple things he reverted right back but then the rest of the practice he changed it and he saw the results. I think that’s the biggest thing. When he sees the results and when he fixes the things he’s got to fix, that’s where it all clicks. I think (Tuesday) that was when, ‘Boom! Oh, I get it right now.’ The light came on a little bit (Tuesday) morning.”

Crouch has shown some positives. He's big (6-foot-4), strong (225 pounds), athletic (three-sport athlete in high school) and is the best runner of the four Illini scholarship quarterbacks. But he also has displayed the shakiest arm. He is more O'Toole than Lunt but does not yet make the consistently quick decisions that allowed O'Toole to overcome his long delivery and mediocre arm strength.

Crouch has the mindset the Illini staff desires, though. Crouch said he hasn't been overhwhelmed by the influx of reps nor the increased pressure.

“Camp’s going great," Crouch said. "I’m really just focused on winning the day, taking it day by day and trying to improve ourselves every day with the limited time we have each day. With more reps comes more confidence. With each rep I have, I’m trying to put our team in best position to win.”

The staff has been steadfast in its support for Crouch as the No. 2 quarterback. He occasionally even gets reps with the first-string offense to develop some rapport with the starters.

The next step for Crouch is to get caught up with the speed of the game.

“Avoiding locking in on one route, moving through his reads a lot faster, pocket presence, stepping up, keeping his technique," Ryan Cubit said. "But the biggest thing for him Saturday was a lot of times he was a second late. When he should’ve been on something else, he was still just staying locked  in on one thing. That killed him a couple times taking sacks and not getting that ball off. He did it well (Tuesday). His biggest thing is consistency. We’ve talked about it all camp. So this week, it’s  got to be a lot more consistent.

"Chayce can do a lot of things with his feet. You can get him out of the pocket a little bit in the quarterback run game, but he’s also gifted throwing it too. He’s just always got to stay on top of his technique. That’s his main thing. Sometimes he can get sloppy. When he gets sloppy with his technique, the ball can go all over the place. When he’s good with his technique, it’s really good."

As the No. 4 quarterback last season, Crouch was at the bottom of the totem pole. As the No. 2, he now must adjust to the thought of being chased (no pun intended).

True freshmen Jimmy Fitzgerald and Jeff George Jr. each have showed promise at times during training camp. Fitzgerald, for instance, was the second most impressive quarterback -- behind Lunt -- at Saturday's scrimmage. George Jr., son of former Illini and longtime NFL quarterback Jeff George Sr., has displayed the strongest arm of the backups.

Crouch said the true freshmen's moments of successes -- they've certainly struggled at times too -- don't bother him, though.

“It’s all encouraging," Crouch said. "I’m happy for them, just as they’re happy for me. That goes for everyone in the QB room.”

He's more focused on getting in the film room and correcting his own mistakes.

“Really the little details like my footwork, where the ball placement is, accuracy and things like that," Crouch said. "Also, a lot of the film we’ve been watching is reading the coverages and if we’re going with the ball to the right place and things like that. Personally, my whole game. I can improve in every aspect of the game in my game. I’m trying to improve whatever I can improve to improve my game.”

If Lunt were again to suffer an injury, Illinois would suffer a big drop off to its backup. Illinois, Ryan Cubit and Crouch are just trying to minimize that gap as quickly as possible -- just in case.

“It’s  a great competition right now between all three of those young kids," Cubit said. "They all get in there. There’s not a whole lot of downtime between them between practices. They’re all trying to watch themselves (on film) and learn. I think none of them are afraid. They’re not backing down, and they all want that spot. They’re eager, and I think they all respond when they see another guy work. And they all get along. They feed off each other. They talk and communicate, which is always good. Good competition, friendly competition is always good.”

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