USA Today // Bob DeChiara

Werner: Illinois offense enters a new era with dynamic, athletic quarterbacks

Addition of talented transfer Dwayne Lawson ushers in a new era, identity for the Illini offense

CHAMPAIGN - Sick of lead-footed Illinois pocket passers? Well, those days are through at Illinois -- as long as Garrick McGee is the offensive coordinator.

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McGee landed the first of his hand-picked quarterbacks this spring. He was the first to extend a scholarship offer to Cam Thomas in May after watching him throw at Marian Catholic high school. He quickly closed.

That was the first sign of what McGee wanted in a quarterback. The most important skill: nimble, quick feet. Thomas ran two 4.5-second 40-yard dashes at an Illini satellite camp in June. He's long at 6-foot-3, athletic and has a solidly strong arm. He didn't put up huge numbers or wins at Marian Catholic, which finished 1-8 in back-to-back seasons due to a lack of talent around Thomas.

McGee also liked what he saw out of tough-running Chayce Crouch in relief of injured, immobile Wes Lunt. Crouch suffered a season-ending shoulder injury early in his first start, a win at Rutgers. The sophomore finished the game. Had the injury not finished the season, Crouch likely would have started the rest of the season.

On Monday, McGee added his most talented prospect yet: 6-foot-6, 230-pound former Virginia Tech quarterback Dwayne Lawson.

Lawson, who spent last season at Garden City Community College, is a monster. That height and weight is legit. He was the No. 29 quarterback in Scout's rankings of the Class of 2015, one spot ahead of Lamar Jackson, whom McGee signed at Louisville. Lawson's tools are comparable. His ceiling is monstrous. Don't believe me? Look at his high school film.

But Lawson -- who will have three years to play two at Illinois when he arrives in July -- has warts.

He struggled to pick up the offense at Virginia Tech, fell to No. 4 on the Hokies depth chart during spring practice and reportedly failed multiple drug tests and faced suspension. He was the second-most used quarterback at Garden City, where he arrived part way through fall training camp. The BroncBusters won the NJCAA national championship 25-22 over Arizona Western.

Illinois did a lot of background work. McGee and Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente both played at Oklahoma and know each other well. McGee also knows Garden City coach Jeff Simms well. Their reports obviously satisfied McGee.

He and Illini head coach Lovie Smith are taking a chance on Lawson, but it's a researched risk -- and the reward can be great.

No matter who plays at quarterback -- Lawson and Crouch likely will compete, but Lawson's tools give him the edge and Thomas likely will redshirt and develop -- the demolition of the previous offense is complete and the renovation officially starts this offseason.

Illinois has a new, more exciting identity.

A minority of Big Ten teams feature a dual-threat quarterback. Ohio State has won championships with dual threats. Penn State's offense took huge strides after Trace McSorley, a dangerous runner when he needs to be, took over for much-hyped but under-productive pocket passer Christian Hackenberg.

The Illini's division, the Big Ten West, is overwhelmingly filled with pocket passers. Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong (512 rushing yards in 2016) set records at Nebraska, but the Cornhuskers will transition to a more pocket-passing offense under coach Mike Riley in 2017. Minnesota's Mitch Leidner (340 rushing yards) was the only other Big Ten West quarterback to rush for more than 100 yards this past season.

The Illini quarterbacks -- a group that will now include some of the team's best athletes -- likely will top that total in some games during the next few seasons. Defenses built to beat the I-formation now will have to account for all 11 offensive players in a dynamic offense with a fleet-footed quarterback -- hopefully, eventually, surrounded by equally athletic playmakers. Success won't come overnight. The Illini staff's 2017 recruiting class will be the first it signs. It likely will need at least two to show of what it is truly capable. As broken down in our 2017 roster breakdown, the Illini senior and junior classes are really weak next season. The Illini aren't yet physical enough on the offensive line and not yet fast enough on the perimeter.

But the 2017 class -- led by Lawson, Thomas, four-star receiver Ricky Smalling and massive offensive linemen Larry Boyd and Vederian Lowe -- is an eye-opening first phase of the renovation, especially if the Illini can land a few more big offensive linemen and play-making receivers (like Reggie Roberson and Jeff Thomas).

Phase two will be the 2018 class in which the Illini are heavily recruiting Chicago Solorio quarterback Quincy Patterson (often compared to former Illini Juice Williams) and state-championship Peoria quarterback Coran Taylor, who directed a record-setting IHSA offense.

McGee recruited Jackson to do big things at Louisville. The true sophomore is about to win the Heisman Trophy.

McGee recruited Jeremiah Briscoe to lead his offense at UAB. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound junior has thrown for 4,459 yards 57 touchdowns for Sam Houston State, which is 12-0 and set to play James Madison this weekend in the FCS quarterfinals.

Lawson is McGee's latest hand-picked quarterback, the quarterback he chose to be the face to usher in his offense -- the face he wants to usher in a new Illini football identity.

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