CHAMPAIGN -- Quarterback Jimmy Fitzgerald is a hometown product, but the redshirt freshman will be finding a new home for his playing career after the Illini program announced on Wednesday that he is leaving the team.
“After much thought and discussion with my family, I have decided to leave the Illinois football program and consider other opportunities for my collegiate career,” Fitzgerald said in a release. “I want to thank all the coaches I’ve played for and worked with at Illinois, including Coach Beckman, Coach Cubit and Coach Smith. My Illini teammates are an incredible bunch of guys and many will remain friends for life. Having grown up in this community, I’ve been a life-long fan of the Fighting Illini and it was a fantastic thrill and opportunity to wear the orange and blue. I know there are great things in the future for the Fighting Illini, but I feel this is the time for a fresh start in my collegiate career.”
Fitzgerald was a three-star quarterback out of Champaign Centennial. As a junior, he threw for more than 2,000 yards with 16 touchdowns and four interceptions. Fitzgerald tore his ACL after two games into his senior year.
He redshirted last year, and he was expected to be in contention for the starting role after this upcoming season. But that will not be the case.
Fitzgerald was absent from all six Illini training camp practices for "personal reasons", according to head coach Lovie Smith.
"“I met with Jimmy Tuesday evening and we discussed his future as he has decided to leave our program,” Smith said. “We wish Jimmy nothing but the best as he moves forward with his career. He is a terrific young man who has the respect of his teammates and all our coaches. Sometimes it just seems to a young man that the best move is to try and get a fresh start, and this is what is happening in this situation.”
The Illini now have three quarterbacks on scholarship: Wes Lunt (senior), Chayce Crouch (redshirt sophomore) and Jeff George Jr. (redshirt freshman).
When Jimmy Fitzgerald wasn't at the first day of training camp, my first thought wasn't, "Uh oh." Rather, I thought, "He must be sick, or something might have happened in his family."
See, some in the Illini football program had told me they thought the wide-open 2017 quarterback battle would be a fight between Fitzgerald and fellow redshirt freshman Jeff George Jr. Even if that were true, apparently some combination of the people who matter most -- head coach Lovie Smith, offensive coordinator Garrick McGee and Fitzgerald -- thought he had little shot at being the long-term solution at quarterback.
Fitzgerald is the second quarterback to transfer out since Smith was hired. Freshman Eli Peters transferred to Toledo after enrolling early last winter to play for former coach Bill Cubit. Like Peters, Fitzgerald was lightly recruited by power-five teams but hand-picked to fit Cubit's scheme.
The transfers signify a big shift in what Illinois wants out of its quarterbacks. Cubit wants highly intelligent quarterbacks who he can trust to run his pretty complicated scheme at the line of scrimmage. He preferred accurate quarterbacks with some athleticism.
Meanwhile, McGee prioritizes toolsy dual-threat quarterbacks with pure talent: speed, agility and arm strength. McGee is very confident in his eye for talent and his ability to "coach them up" once they arrive on campus. Though he's coached picket passers, like Ryan Mallett at Arkansas, McGee prefers quarterbacks who can also make plays with their feet, like Louisville's Lamar Jackson who as a true freshman last season passed for 1,840 yards (12 touchdowns to eight interceptions) and rushed for 960 yards and 11 touchdowns.
McGee showed what he wants in a quarterback when he became the first to extend a scholarship offer to Marian Catholic quarterback Cam Thomas, who committed during the spring. Despite a not-so-hot completion percentage on a not-so-talented team, Thomas runs a 4.54 40-yard dash, has a strong arm and showed solid accuracy during spring camps that featured other Division I prospects. McGee also quickly offered Chicago Solorio junior Quincy Patterson, whose size, arm strength and athleticism remind many of former Illini dual-threat quarterback Juice Williams.
Fitzgerald had what looked like the best overall skill set of the backup quarterbacks and reminded me of fomer Illini Reilly O'Toole. Meanwhile, Chayce Crouch -- a redshirt sophomore who is taking most of the second-team reps so far during training camp -- is a stronger, better runner but a shaky arm. George Jr. has a better arm but is skinny for a Big Ten quarterback and doesn't move outside of the pocket that well. But Fitzgerald seemed to be a happy medium between both. He seemed to have a chance to win the 2017 starting job, but his future beyond that looked pretty murky with McGee likely to favor his hand-picked signal-callers.
Now, the wide-open 2017 competition is down to Crouch, George Jr and Thomas, who seemingly will need a year of seasoning. But don't be surprised if Illinois checks the graduate transfer, multi-year transfer and junior-college transfer market to add to the 2017 (and possibly 2018) competition.