CHAMPAIGN — Last Sunday, during a University of Illinois football practice winding to a close in the afternoon sun, quarterback Jeff George Jr. rolled to his right and found no open receiver.
Rather than tuck the ball and run, or just throw the ball out of bounds, George wound up and heaved one across his body, right down the middle of the field.
It was easily intercepted.
As decisions go, this was somewhere between bad and awful.
An hour later, after the rest of the team headed for the showers, George was still standing on the same practice field, still in his uniform, talking one-on-one with a man who knows him better than anyone.
That man was the quarterback’s father, Jeff George Sr.
George Sr. is no stranger to an Illini football field. He was quarterback at Illinois in 1988 and 1989, leading the team to bowl games each season. He became the first overall pick in the 1990 NFL Draft and in 12 seasons he threw for 27,682 yards and 154 touchdowns.
The lengthy exchange between father and son included no demonstrations, no game of catch. It was just a heart-to-heart talk.
“He was just telling me to stay positive and really, he was just being a dad at this point,” said George Jr., who is battling to be Illinois’ No. 2 quarterback this season.
“He knows there’s a whole staff of people who do the job of being the coach. He knows we’re in great hands. He’s just there to be supportive and be a dad. It’s nice having a guy I’ve grown up with my entire life and who has been there and understands what it is to be a quarterback. It’s really a blessing.”
No one knows how good Jeff George Jr. can be as a college quarterback and comparing him to his father would be terribly unfair. George Jr. redshirted as a freshman last season and is battling third-year player Chayce Crouch for the right to hear his name called should anything happen to starter Wes Lunt.
Of all the position battles going on, this training camp battle feels the most important.
Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee, who will make the ultimate call, says George has the right makeup for the position.
“He has the personality to let things roll off his shoulder when needed," McGee said. "He doesn’t let one play carry on to the next one, which is a really good trait. And he has the ability to throw the ball all over the field.”
That, of course, is no surprise when one considers the bloodline.
McGee knew all about the one-on-one conversation between father and son that took place last weekend.
“That was Jeff’s worst day in training camp,” McGee said. “He was obviously trying to impress his dad that day. I told his dad the next time he comes to practice, stand somewhere where he can’t see you.”
Does McGee think George Sr. was telling his son to make better decisions? “He was probably telling him to throw it deep all the time,” the coordinator said through a faint smile.
George Sr. had one the strongest arms in football and when in doubt he threw the ball, trouble be damned.
No surprise, then, that George Jr. sometimes takes the same approach.
“Yeah, he can fall in love with his arm sometimes,” McGee said. “He’s a lot like his dad, I’ll bet.”
Coming along in a couple years will be the elder George’s younger son, Jayden George, who is a sophomore at Warren Central High School in Indianapolis. That’s the same school where George Sr. and George Jr. played, and word is Jayden George is developing into a player with special talents. There’s already speculation there will be a major recruiting war.
“Warren Central has a pretty good squad, ranked No. 21 in the nation,” George Jr. said proudly. “He’s about to be doing big things. He’s really good.
“He was 5-foot-8 his freshman year. Now he’s 6-1, but a skinny kid. He’s still growing. And he has that cannon on him.”
Jayden George’s day will come but Jeff George Jr. hopes his time is now.
Chances are at some point this season Wes Lunt will need relief. Jeff George Jr. hopes he’s the one Illinois has warming up in the bullpen.