CHAMPAIGN — The Lovie Smith coaching staff has brought a number of offensive linemen, defensive linemen and wide receivers into the University of Illinois program through its first full recruiting class.
And just one quarterback.
Cam Thomas, who made his college debut last week at Minnesota, caught the eye of offensive coordinator Garrick McGee early when he evaluated him at Chicago Heights Marian Catholic High School.
McGee liked his athleticism, his speed, his big hands and his intellect. While other schools didn’t see a player who could win at the Big Ten level, McGee did. That’s why McGee offered him a scholarship.
Seven weeks into his freshman season, it’s likely the Illini will be playing Thomas more and more as they try to get a handle on what they have heading into the 2018 season.
To understand why Thomas didn’t play earlier in the season, and to understand how much he might play now, takes some reading between the lines.
But McGee admits Thomas still doesn’t have a full grasp of the playbook and that right now, Jeff George Jr. is the more accomplished passer.
Translation: A rotation between the two is likely and Thomas’ debut was likely delayed until he could be trusted with enough of the playbook to execute a reasonable portion of the game plan.
Now the learning accelerates, the coaches said.
“The first step is to get out there and take a snap,” said Smith. “That’s a big step. Now that the first game is out of the way, things will become more familiar to him.”
McGee said it’s a big step moving from high school quarterback to college freshman asked to help win a Big Ten game.
“He’s like most freshmen — he’s learning,” McGee said. “We spend a lot of time teaching them how to take notes, teaching them how to study and what to study.
“He’s really good at asking questions. If he doesn’t understand something, he will say, ‘I don’t know how to study this (film) cut-up.’ He will come and ask and he’s not afraid, which is a good thing.
“I think it has something to do with the fact because of the recruiting he feels comfortable around me. He doesn’t worry about asking me the wrong questions.”
Thomas and George shuffled in and out at Minnesota, rotating plays as McGee felt the situation demanded.
“Each possession is so important and our margin for error is so slim, but you have to have the right guy on the field,” he said. “Cam did a lot of running but he also threw the ball and handed it off. We just wanted to get his feet on the ground and get him moving around managing the offense.
“His role will continue to grow. We want him to develop. When this offensive crew comes back next season we don’t want to be waiting around on Cam. We want him ready to go.
“I was just really glad to get him out there on the field with the rest of those (freshmen) so our development as a program goes faster.”
Given a limited selection of plays, Thomas carried 10 times for a team-high 79 yards rushing. He threw just four passes and completed two for 33 yards. But he threw one costly fourth-quarter interception that was returned for a touchdown.
Chayce Crouch began the season as Illinois’ starting quarterback and was replaced by George in the fifth game against Iowa. Since then, Crouch has been working at tight end.
That leaves Thomas as Illinois’ only dual threat quarterback, at least until Peoria’s Coran Taylor arrives as a freshman next summer.
Can Thomas be the long-term answer?
McGee can’t say. But his development-under-fire has begun and is expected to continue Saturday when the Illini play their homecoming game at Memorial Stadium against No. 5 Wisconsin.