Jacob Charest was thrust into a pressure-packed game and asked to preserve a lead against Minnesota last weekend when senior starter Juice Williams went down with a sprained ankle. Showing calmness under fire, he led the Illini on three touchdowns, enough to eek out a big win.
With Williams doubtful for the Northwestern game, Charest may now start his first college game. He wasn't expecting this much action.
"I definitely didn't expect to see as much playing time as I have. I was just hoping to get into some games. I thought I'd maybe get into 2-3 games this year. I wasn't expecting what's going on now.
"I'm definitely happy about being able to play, but under the circumstance it's kind of bittersweet. Nobody wants to see a teammate go down, but at the same time it's kind of an opportunity for me to jump in there."
To say the last few weeks have been a whirlwind is an understatement.
"It kind of seems like in the past four weeks that time has fast-forwarded about two years. It's weird because it doesn't even feel like this year I wasn't getting any reps. It has all happened so fast that it's almost like I've been doing it all year."
Is he nervous about possibly starting his first game?
"I guess it should feel more different than it does. There's just a lot more responsibilities on me this week. Juice could still possibly come back, so I don't know how much I'll have to worry about the pressure."
Regardless, Charest's life has changed in a major way. Students are beginning to notice him on campus. His personal life has been reduced to class, sleep, and spending time studying football.
"I'm either here, sleeping or in class. Yeah, it (workload) has increased alot. Before, I was coming in almost every day to watch film and kind of try to stay on pace with all the other guys. Now, I have to come in every single day. Even on Sundays, I have to come in to get a head start to learn as much about the defense as possible."
Practice has changed also.
"Practice isn't that much different. The difference would be the guys I'm in with, and possibly a little more reps. But other than that, the practice structure's still the same. We've changed the plays up a little bit, but it's essentially the same."
Of course, his personal play package has increased exponentially.
"Against Purdue, it was maybe 10 plays. Now, it's expanded to a good bit of the offense. It's definitely expanded by alot."
Illinois coach Ron Zook agrees on how the 6'-4", 225 pounder has been given more responsibility within the offense.
"You expand it every week. You build on it a little bit. He's not too far away."
Thinking back on the Minnesota game, the Matthews, North Carolina product surprised himself with his play.
"Yeah. I didn't really expect to come in there and complete as many passes downfield as I did. I came back and watched film, and I was like, 'That wasn't too bad. There are some good plays I guess.'
The receivers made good catches to make his job easier.
Yeah, definitely, the guys are really helping me out. The thing I was satisfied about myself the most is I was able to get the ball in the hands of the playmakers."
Was there a play that convinced him he would be ok?
"It was the first corner I threw to Jeff (Cumberland). He didn't catch it, but I got it in there. At least I know I can get the ball where it needs to be."
One impressive play said alot about Charest's poise under fire. It was third and 13, and the Illini needed points. With the pocket collapsing around him, he cooly stepped forward and threw a bullet to Chris Duvalt for a big first down. He was glad he didn't run past the line of scrimmage.
"That's always been kind of a habit. I'd rather throw the ball downfield than carry it. As soon as I threw it, I looked back to see if they were gonna call it. I looked back for flags, but luckily they didn't call it.
"I think the rest of the guys, if they have an opportunity to run, they're probably gonna run. It's opposite with me. If there's any way I can throw the ball, I'm gonna throw it. But if not, I'll run it."
Quarterbacks wear red shirts in practice to protect them from injury, so they never experience a live blitz until game action. Many respond poorly out of fear of being hit. Charest is the opposite. He hit hot receivers several times just before being hit. He was born with that ability, but he also credits his offensive line.
"I guess I have faith in my line to be able to protect me. I wasn't too worried about getting hit. I got hit a couple times, but usually I get the ball out quick enough I don't have to worry about it."
He knew college defenses love to scare rookies with an all-out blitz, and the Gophers obliged repeatedly. Despite the pressure, Charest was never sacked.
"Oh yeah. You put a freshman in there, and normally the guy will panic. I just try not to panic."
He is still a work in progress. But he has the added benefit of an experienced signal caller to assist him. Williams may be unable to practice right now, but he is still there to help Charest.
"Juice always helps me out a tremendous amount. He played as a young guy. He's done pretty much everything I'm going through right now. Every little thing he can help me out with is greatly appreciated."
Zook is understandably pleased with his young quarterback.
"You always tell them, you don't know when your opportunity is gonna come. I think Jacob went in and did a nice job. I was very impressed with the way he handled the offense, handled what his responsibilities were. He doesn't get too excited, he's just calm. He played well."
Charest's brother plays high school ball back in North Carolina, limiting the frequency his family can attend games. They missed his two opportunities at Purdue and Minnesota, and he didn't play at home against Michigan when they made the long trek to watch him. Hopefully, they will be rewarded for their all-night drive this Saturday by finally getting to watch their son in action.
When they arrive, they may find their son has grown up some since they last saw him. Nervous with his first few media opportunities, Charest was cool in front of the Big 10 Network cameras after the Minnesota win.
"The whole offense did a great job. The o-line was protecting real nice. The receivers played great. Eddie, Rejus (Arrelious Benn) and all those guys were making great plays. It was just a total team effort."
Spoken like a veteran.