Jacob Charest is learning the hard way the life of a college quarterback. He is going through a process familiar to almost all college quarterbacks. He is no longer considered the future savior by fans because he is now a sophomore and freshman Nathan Scheelhaase has taken on that role.
He is improving, but he is not ready to supplant senior starter Juice Williams or fourth year junior Eddie McGee. He must quarterback the reserves against the first string defense, a task left to McGee the last three years. It is a tough job, scrambling for your life without benefit of opportunities to show your skills playing behind a first string line.
But Charest is keeping his spirits up while learning the ropes the hard way. It is a necessary step in his ascention to a future starting job at quarterback. He is much improved over his freshman year, and he continues to work hard.
"Compared to last year, I'm a lot better," Charest relates. "I'm definitely a lot better. A lot of it is being comfortable, my arm is a little stronger and more accurate. I've still got a good ways to go, but I think eventually I'll be in a good situation."
Charest was in limbo as a freshman. There were only three quarterbacks on scholarship, and Illinois coaches hoped to preserve a redshirt year for him. He had to be prepared in case of injury to Williams or McGee, so he spent practically no time running the scout team offense. He got few reps with the varsity either, but he definitely learned from the experience.
"It's a lot easier. It's definitely a lot smoother this year. It's more doing and less learning. You're always learning, but with repetition after repetition, you get a little better."
His work last fall and especially last spring also aided his confidence level.
"Exactly. Confidence is huge. Last year, I didn't understand what was going wrong, why I didn't do everything right. This year, It's just kind of go out there and do it."
The Charlotte, North Carolina, native has also worked to transform his body.
"I've definitely lost a little weight and put on a little muscle. Hopefully, that will help me out this year."
Charest is known for his strong and accurate throwing arm. That part of the game comes easily for him. But he admits there is still much to learn.
"I need to improve everything. I'm still definitely learning. I'm trying to work on my tempo and step up, trying not to be the same old lazy Jake I guess. I want to work on momentum, to get an attitude of quick, quick, quick.
"Juice and Eddie have been helping me a ton. The difference between this year and last year is all the quarterbacks are all working together. Last year, I didn't really know them that great. But now we all know each other. If we see something they don't, then we tell them and vice versa."
More than anything, a quarterback is the face of the football program. He must know what everyone is doing on offense at all times and be able to respond quickly and correctly to whatever the defense throws at him. He must know the offense as well as the coaches and accept that responsibility 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"That's one thing I'm doing better this year, getting into the playbook a lot more outside of just meetings and football practice. It's helping a lot. You've got to always think about football. Even when you're sitting at home watching TV. Thinking about plays is a non-stop job."
While he would love to play this year, the 6'-4", 225 pounder benefits from having two talented upperclassmen with whom he can compete daily.
"It's a good thing to compete with guys like that, to set your standards real high. If you can compete with them, you can compete with anybody."
Charest didn't expect to play last year, but the chance to play this year serves as great motivation for him.
"It makes you get stuff going. You definitely don't want to get in the game not knowing what to do. It forces you to learn. It makes you want to look up stuff after meetings. It just makes you put in a lot more work."
He gets excited talking about the potential of the 2009 offense.
"We are stacked. Our receivers are outstanding, our line looks great. The running backs, even the new kids. We're outstanding at all positions. We're gonna have a good year. A real good year.
"There's plenty of things we can do. And Juice looks great too. His arm looks awesome. You've got Jarred Fayson, Rejus (Arrelious Benn), A.J. (A.J. Jenkins), Jack Ramsey, Cordale Scott, everybody. And the running backs look great. The line's doing a good job."
Charest is hoping for the opportunity to quarterback this group in an actual college game this year.
"Yeah. It would be awesome to get in front of those fans and cameras. It would be a lot of fun. It always is the case that the first play, I'm nervous. I get a play under my belt and then just go from there. I think that first play will be pretty nerve-wracking."
With playing time comes fan evaluation. Negative judgments can weigh heavily on any quarterback, it comes with the territory. Charest seems to understand this and is ready for it.
"That's true, but it's constructive criticism. Fans kind of know what's going on, but they really don't. So you kind of listen to them and agree with them, but you've got to listen to the coaches more than them."