CHAMPAIGN - Backup quarterback with questionable arm strength replaces an injured Wes Lunt. Said backup lends added dimension to a failing offense and added fire to a listless team. Quarterback controversy ensues.
Wait, haven't we seen this story before?
“Yeah, Reilly," said junior running back Kendrick Foster, who played with O'Toole from 2013-14. "Tough-nosed. Actually, Reilly hit me up earlier (Saturday) and told me good luck. From watching it today, despite the loss, he reminds me a lot of Reilly. Chayce has that grit. I love that about him. He’s young but he’s an athlete. He can run, and in college football, a running quarterback is a big threat, especially in the Big Ten and it helped us move the ball and move the chains.”
Whether fair or not, it seems Lunt's career will be bookended by two backups beloved more by the fan base.
The strong-armed signal caller started the first four games of that first season of eligibility at Illinois (2014), throwing for more than 1,300 yards during nonconference play and leading the Illini to three fourth-quarter comeback wins. But injuries knocked him out of five of the next seven games, and O’Toole didn’t look great right away, completing just 17 of 38 passes in a 45-14 loss in his first start at Nebraska.
But O’Toole gradually improved and slightly improved his team’s chance of winning. He made enough plays with his arm and legs to complement strong Illini defensive performances in wins against Minnesota and Penn State.
But O’Toole’s shining moment -- the career-defining moment -- came during a three-passing touchdown, 147-yard rushing performance in a bowl-clinching win at Northwestern in the 2014 regular-season finale.
When his senior season began, O’Toole’s career looked like it never really started. The three-star, IHSA state champion never could beat out Nathan Scheelhaase -- not that that’s something to hang his head about -- and was recruited over when Tim Beckman brought in two other IHSA state-champion quarterbacks: Aaron Bailey and Lunt (via transfer from Oklahoma State).
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1715667-further-review-dl-wo... But by the end of that 2014 season, O’Toole was the fan favorite: the man who sparked the Illini offense, resuscitated the Illini season and saved Beckman’s job (at least for the offseason) -- though fans probably didn’t love O’Toole for the last part.
Like O’Toole, Illinois is recruiting over Crouch, scouring for grad-transfer and JUCO options to add immediate competition while also trying to add prep prospects with better arms and more athleticism. But like O’Toole, Crouch is making his case for the present while also making a case for Lunt to be a part of the past.
No one has better perspective on Crouch's current position than O’Toole: what it’s like to be the backup, what it's like to finally get your moment to shine due to an injury and what it’s like to be on the inside of a quarterback controversy with Lunt.
So Illini Inquirer called up O’Toole to get his thoughts on Crouch, Lunt and the current Illini quarterbacking situation.
What did you think of how Chayce played on Saturday?
Reilly O'Toole: “It was great. As Chayce said, I’ve been watching interviews, it’s tough to see Wes good down being a good friend of his. But it was cool to see (Crouch) run around and have some fire out there. I think he rallied the troops a little bit and started playing a little bit better, so it was really cool to see.”
How difficult is it to come into a game as a backup quarterback?
RO: “I think it’s very difficult. Just when someone gets hurt, it’s tough to come into. Your mind’s racing. You’re worried about them and how they’re doing. At the same time, you’re the quarterback. You have to be the leader of the team. And you’re cold. A lot of times you go multiple games or half a season without getting hit and all that kind of stuff, so it’s definitely difficult.”
What did Chayce add to the team?
RO: “His running ability, it looked like Purdue wasn’t ready for that. He’s a great runner. He doesn’t protect himself very much, but at the same time, the way he runs, I think it’s inspiring to guys on the team.”
Chayce immediately reminded people of you. What do you see of you in Chayce?
RO: “I think for the most part just running recklessly at times (reminds people of me). I think at times, I got carried away as a runner. But Chayce is definitely a better runner than I was. I think he’s a better thrower than a lot of people think. ...I think he has a really strong arm, but he just needs to be a little bit more consistent, which I’m sure he’ll be the first to tell you. But hopefully, they’ll open up the playbook and allow him to throw it around a little bit. I think he’s a lot more talented than I was, for sure.”
What did you see out of Chayce Crouch when you were in the room with him during his redshirt season in 2014?
RO: “Him asking as many questions as he did and how well he prepared even as a redshirt was really cool to see. We’d go watch film all the time. He’d ask me questions and all that kind of stuff, so it was great to see a young guy like that focused even though he probably wasn’t going to get into a game.
“I’m glad he got the chance. It’s unfortunate circumstances, but that’s why you play the game. That’s why you have multiple quarterbacks.”
You know as well as anybody that when you sign up to be a Big Ten quarterback, you sign up for a lot of criticism. What is Wes Lunt going through now? What’s held him back?
RO: “I think Wes, he himself has had the injury bug, but I think some injuries at the wide receiver position have hurt him. If you have experience and maybe not as much talent, you might be better off than having young guys who are talented with no experience. I think he just needs a few more pieces around him to be successful because when you’re running quarterback, you can kind of make up for guys not being able to get open because you can run around and make something happen. ...When that’s not kind of in your repertoire, it kind of sticks out when you’re not getting too much help around you, I think.”
I’ll ask it. Who do you think should start from here on out?
RO: “(Laughs) Obviously, I was in Chayce’s position. I think if Wes is healthy, he should play. If he’s not 100 percent, then Chayce should play. Wes at 60 percent, I don’t think it’s fair to Wes to throw him back out there when he’s more prone to get hurt. I think Chayce proved himself that the coaches can have confidence to allow Wes to, even if he’s 85 percent, to allow him another week to heal up so the next time he comes back at 100 percent. I mean, I’m not a coach or anything. But I just think it’d be fair to Wes and the team to put the 100 percent guy out there.”
If Wes gets back to 100 percent, you wonder if the coaches would rotate the quarterbacks. But how difficult would that be as quarterbacks to split reps?
RO: “It’s extremely difficult. One, you need as many reps as possible because there’s just so many different things a defense can do. Being a backup, you’ll get your fair share of reps during practice,but you won’t see it with multiple reps that the defense will give you. As a starter, you see more looks. Splitting the reps, you’re not seeing as much as you should and you’re just not getting the reps with the receivers and the o-line and all that kind of stuff.”
What does that final stretch of your senior season still mean for you to this day?
RO: “Means a lot. It was a great way for me to end my career. I spent three to three and a half years of my career watching a lot of football. I had some tough breaks and didn’t play as well, so to go out like that. And to have family and friends there for most of it to share those moments. Illini nation and you guys (in the media) know it as much as anybody, we had some pretty rough years. That 2-10 year we weren’t even close in 90 percent of those games, it’s tough. It’s tough on the fans, but it’s really tough for the players to try to get up for those games and then things go bad and you kind of crumble. We had some tough years and for it to end that way, it was awesome. I was glad to share it with my teammates.”
That quarterback room fascinates me. You’re teammates with those guys, but unlike any other position, there really is only one guy that gets regular playing time, which is why you see so much more turnover (transfers) in that room. How does that relationship work? I imagine it’s got to be hard to be so competitive and stay supportive of each other.
RO: “It really isn’t as hard as you think. The characters and personalities make it 100 percent easier. Even when Aaron (Bailey) was here, he was an awesome guy and he made it easy as well. I think when you have unselfish players that just want to win and want the best guy out there, that’s what you get. But at the same time, you understand when guys transfer out because you come there to play football. ...To be able to put the team first, it’s hard in that aspect because you want to get out there. #specially when you’re losing and you’re watching, it’s tough when you can’t contribute because you can help them out. I think it takes a lot to be able to support a good friend of yours and at the same time kind of sit back and help out as much as you can.”
What do you make of what’s going on with this team this season and this program moving forward?
RO: “I think if you thought they were going to win a bunch of games this year you were pretty optimistic. I think they’re doing some good things. I think with every team that struggles, at least that I’ve been on, you have your moments where you’re in games and things are going well. You think, ‘Oh, maybe we’re turning the corner,’ and then just like the last couple games in the fourth quarter, you’re like, ‘OK, well, we still have a long way to go.’ I think they’ve made progress. I think in a couple years, two or three years, you’ll really see what Illinois football will really be about. But I think it’s important for Illini fans to stick behind them and be realistic. It’s tough to tell a fan to do that, as you know more than anybody. But it is what it is.”