IlliniInquirer publisher Jeremy Werner is breaking down each Illini football position group, what they're looking to add at each position in the Class of 2017 and their top targets.
First up, the quarterbacks.
What Illini have on roster
Spring Football 2017 will bring the juiciest of storylines to Illini football: a wide open quarterback battle. Like ... really, really wide open.
Wes Lunt will graduate following this upcoming season, his third straight as the starter. Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee has told media this spring that he hopes no one ever discovers the identity of the No. 2 quarterback on their depth chart because that means Lunt stayed healthy for the entire season. It also shows what McGee thinks of Lunt's talent -- he's a pro prospect in the mold of Indiana's Nate Sudfeld -- and confirms what we've seen: there's a big drop off from Lunt to the rest of the bunch.
Redshirt sophomore Chayce Crouch received most of the No. 2 reps last season and received a sizable share of them this spring. I compare him to former NIU quarterback Jordan Lynch. Now before you say, 'Then why isn't he starting for Illinois?!' since Lynch of course finished third in the 2013 Heisman voting, please understand that Lynch would not have had the same success against faster, stronger power-five conference defenses. Lynch was a strong, smart, athletic, tough runner and a good leader (traits Crouch shares). But Lynch couldn't throw very accurately beyond 10-15 yards. Most of his 6,209 career passing yards came on horizontal screen passes. That kind of offense rarely works in the Big Ten. Crouch has the weakest and wobbliest of arms in the Illini quarterback room. That said, he's an intriguing option due to his plus running ability.
Redshirt freshman Jeff George Jr. put himself square in the backup competition this spring. He had the best performance of his Illini career at the open spring practice in front of thousands of fans. He has the best arm of the backups. But mostly has mostly been inaccurate in his short time at Illinois, though at times this spring showed a new kind of touch that is intriguing. He's the least athletic and mobile of the backups and by far the skinniest. He will have questions of whether he can stay strong in the pocket and take a Big Ten beating.
Redshirt freshman Jimmy Fitzgerald may have the most complete skill set of the backups. He's not great at one trait but he's mostly solid at everything. He's big, athletic and smart with a solidly strong arm. If you asked me which Illini backup has the best chance to start for Illinois, I'd lean Fitzgerald. His biggest question remains his accuracy against Big Ten-caliber defenders.
Freshman Eli Peters has a lot of similarities to Fitzgerald but probably won't be a factor for another two years.
There is little separating the top three backups. That's a positive in that there's actual competition, but it's a negative in that no one is standing above the rest. That provides opportunity for whoever Illinois signs in 2017.
What Illini want in 2017
The other factor opening the door for a new quarterback to enter the 2017 Illini quarterback race is McGee wants a different type of quarterback. McGee's Petrino-inspired, pro-style, power-run offense can succeed with pocket passers, like Lunt or Ryan Mallett. But he prefers dual-threat, athletic quarterbacks -- like Lamar Jackson who McGee coached at Louisville -- who can make plays with his arm and feet. That forces more pressure on defenses to account for another playmaker.
The Illini are looking at dynamic quarterbacks with plus athleticism, game-breaking speed, playmaking ability in space and an arm that can stretch defenses vertically.
Illinois could take two quarterbacks in the Class of 2017, putting into question the future of the current underclassmen on the roster. The Illini also are looking at junior college quarterbacks who could push the current backups next spring, but it's uncertain whether some of their preferred JUCO targets could get into Illinois academically.
It's rare to see true freshmen quarterbacks push for immediate playing time (Lunt at Oklahoma State 2012, Juice Williams at Illinois 2006). The opportunity is there for whoever Illinois adds in the Class of 2017. While that's exciting, it also means Illinois has major questions at the roster's most important position.
Alabama quarterback Kadarius Toney could also be a special wide receiver. He's an elite athlete with special, sudden change-of-direction agility and breakaway speed. He also has a big arm with a smooth delivery. Toney is undersized and must improve his feel for the pocket, but he is a special athlete with a high ceiling. He could make an immediate impact at so many different spots on the field. He has a lot of big offers, including Florida, South Carolina and Ole Miss, but Illinois is recruiting him as a quarterback while most others are recruiting him as a receiver. Illinois may take a commitment from another quarterback, but that may not end their pursuit of Toney.
Marian Catholic quarterback Cam Thomas has visited the Illini twice in the past month and the Illini showed a lot of love. The Illini haven't offered a scholarship ... yet. But McGee recently watched the dual-threat quarterback and I'm told he liked what he saw. Thomas seems to fit what the Illini want at quarterback. He's long and athletic but also has a strong arm. He doesn't yet have a Big Ten offer but has interest from Purdue, Minnesota and Indiana. Yet, Illinois seems to have a great chance if they offer. "What stood out for me is that it was the first time sitting in a coach's office and having a talk," Thomas told IlliniInquirer.com earlier this month. "There was a very genuine feel from the coaches that they want a change and are gonna make it. There is a new era coming for Illini football."
UPDATE, 4/29 1:07 p.m.: Jackson has committed to Arkansas.
Like Toney, the younger brother of Illini DT signee Kenyon Jackson is a wide receiver recruit for most programs, but Illinois is recruiting the long athlete as a quarterback option. But Jackson plans to play receiver in college and holds an offer from homestate Arkansas, who will be tough to beat.