On the one hand, the love affair the University of Illinois football team appears to have with its new quarterback seems fabricated by coaches who wish the sentiment was real.
The previous starter graduates. The new quarterback is anointed. He’s declared the charismatic leader that every teammate follows. And the repetitious drum beat of that message drives home the point in the months leading to the start of the season.
But skepticism is fair: How is it a guy like Chayce Crouch could actually have such a devoted following when he has started just one game and had one memorable relief performance?
The answer can be found by looking back at comments made by offensive coordinator Garrick McGee late last September, after the Illini had been clobbered by North Carolina and Western Michigan and were preparing for the Big Ten opener against Nebraska.
If McGee’s comments were telling then, they are more telling now. They indicate that what was missing from previous quarterback/captain Wes Lunt is precisely what makes Crouch so attractive to his teammates and what raises hope as the Illini prepare to open the season Saturday against Ball State.
McGee prefaced his remarks 11 months ago by saying he’d asked every player to reach deeper to find improvement heading into conference play.
“When you get to conference play, it’s about your top players playing well,” McGee said. “It’s about guys you read about, your upperclassmen, your big-time players. They have to show up and play well.
“I want to see Wes lay it on the line. I’ve talked with him a lot and the one thing he needs as we move forward is to show a little more passion, a little more intensity … the ability to have everyone see that their quarterback is going to be diving and jumping and is going to be emotionally invested in the game, that he’s going to compete like crazy and run when you have to run.
“You have to completely sell out for 60 minutes because you only get so many of those opportunities. There’s a lot when you are the quarterback and he’s not only the quarterback, he’s the captain and the team is going to follow the captain.”
Lunt had a good and sometimes terrific arm. But he was never willing to invite contact and was not able to become that leader who physically sold out to pick up a first down or plow over the goal line.
But in two brief appearances last year, Crouch did what Lunt never could. He played like a wild man, running for positive yardage and smashing through linebackers while bringing the crowd and the Illini sideline to its feet.
He pumped his fist. He screamed. And he moved the offense.
That’s what head coach Lovie Smith is hoping to seize upon. That’s what McGee is excited about. And that’s why Crouch's teammates are not just following the company script when they express an eagerness to follow him into battle.
“When he played last year, there was instant energy,” Smith said. “The team had a lot of faith in him.”
Crouch’s energy may even be too much at times. He walks a fine line.
Unlike Lunt, who was famously quiet, Crouch is a noted trash talker who already has his coaches hoping he knows the proper limits.
“I’m not really into trash talk,” McGee said. “It’s not my favorite thing at all. I don’t know why you have to trash talk when you can execute plays and find a way to keep moving the ball down the field.”
Crouch said he learned to talk trash at a young age. And he learned it from his own parents.
“Here, I’m a very relaxed guy,” he said at this week’s media gathering. “On the field I’m very competitive and high-energy. The university needs a confident person who isn’t afraid to speak their mind and be themselves and I feel like I’ve tried to fill that role.
“I feel like I’m fearless. I’ll do anything to win. I think a lot of people on our team have that quality now and it’s going to be exciting to play on a field with a group of people who have the same mindset.
“I honestly think (trash) talking is a part of the game. You can’t be on a football field and not be vocal in the position I’m in. That’s an important part of the game — not just how you play but how you carry yourself, your charisma, your demeanor, it all ties together.”
Crouch’s father, Troy Crouch, played basketball and his mother, Traci, played softball at Shawnee State University.
“My dad taught me at a young age this is how it is, no matter what sport. You have to hate losing more than you love winning. He’s always told me that.
“Through all the ups and downs, I’ve never let that fade. If you love the game you want to show it. You don’t want to hide it.”
No position group seems to gravitate to Crouch more enthusiastically than the offensive line. They never speak negatively about Lunt, but they clearly prefer what Crouch brings to the huddle.
“I love playing for Chayce,” starting guard Nick Allegretti said. “That’s a common trend through the entire offensive line. He’s a guy we know has our back. If something happens with coverage or protection, he’ll make us right. We trust him. He trusts us. I love the energy he brings.”
Crouch appears to have a capable group of receivers, headlined by senior Malik Turner and the return of Mike Dudek. Running back Kendrick Foster gives him the top rusher from 2016.
If the defense can replace major losses on the line, Illinois might show improvement in 2017.
But Crouch is the key. He has the ability to run and pass and exude the passion and confidence McGee and Smith have been searching for.
The willingness to embrace him as the team leader seems odd given his limited playing experience. Then you get to know him. Then you remember what Wes Lunt was never able to be.
That’s when Crouch’s status begins to make sense.