Despite some early nerves on the quarterback-center exchange that led to a fumble recovery by Minnesota, Jeff George Jr. showed improvement from his first start at the Big House to his second start back home in Champaign against Minnesota last week.
George has the ability to become a major factor for the Illini program in the near future. And last Saturday, he showed some specific traits that will allow him to become a successful Big Ten quarterback.
When George takes snaps under center or from the shotgun, his footwork is very good. He has the foot speed to get depth and the balance to set up an deliver the ball.
In the following play, the Illini aligned in 20/Queens (2RB-0TE-3WR) personnel with George aligned in the shot gun. The launch point changed due to the edge pressure from outside linebacker Julian Huff. George was able to climb the pocket, step into his throw and displayed the velocity necessary to connect with wide receiver Malik Turner.
Stopping the run is rule number one for any defensive front, especially on 3rd and 1. In the following play, Illini offensive coordinator Garrick McGee fooled the Gophers defense with 23/Jax (2RB-3TE-0WR) formation, indicating that Illinois will attempt to run the ball with offensive lineman Jordan Fagan aligned in the backfield as the fullback.
George showed that he can execute play-action passes effectively by selling the run fake and hiding the ball momentarily, causing all three defensive levels to hesitate. That allowed attached TE Tyler White to slip into the flat (5 Route) and turn a high percentage pass into an explosion play (20 yards or more) deep into the red zone.
George's accuracy is another trait he possesses and put it on display several times last Saturday afternoon. One example came on touch down pass to WR Zach Grant. Grant ran a post corner (7 Route) and George had the touch to beat tight coverage vs. safety Antoine Winfield Jr. The ball placement allowed Grant to use his body to box out Winfield working back toward the sideline where George placed the ball.
Another angle shows George using his eyes to hold the centerfield safety Adekunle Ayinde. That gave him enough time to ensure a one-on-one match-up for Grant to beat Winfield.
Play extension is another attribute that can be checked off the list for George. He has the ability to navigate the pocket by avoiding immediate pressure up the gut or off the edge while keeping his eyes downfield. On this particular play, George was able to avoid left OLB Kamal Martin off the edge and interior pressure from DT Gaelin Elmore. His athleticism allowed him to buy time to locate WRs downfield.
Lastly, he has good arm strength to make both intermediate throws between 12-15 yards and vertical shots of 20 yards or more. For instance, the ball is placed on the near sideline and George shows the power to drive the ball across the field connecting with Grant on an Out cut.
He also can push the ball downfield on fades (9 routes). George completed a back shoulder pass to WR Sam Mays, allowing him to adjust to the ball first before CB Ray Buford could track it. Mays made an excellent adjustment and finished the catch with good play strength.
In short, George, Jr. showed some flashes resembling an Illini great: his father Jeff George, Sr. There is always room for improvement and there will only be more challenges ahead for the remainder of the season.
His mental processing must continue to improve pre- and post-snap. Defenses will continue to mix up their blitz packages and disguise man/zone coverages to confuse the redshirt freshman. George also must add strength to his thin frame.
But George has a physical skill set that will help the Illini program going forward.
Micheal Young is the football analyst for IlliniInquirer.com. Young was a four-year starter for Illinois football and a team captain. The St. Louis native also played for the NFL's Arizona Cardinals from 2001-04. He serves as a color analyst for several broadcast outlets and co-hosts an Illini podcast with former UI teammate Carey Davis on Huddlepass.com.