CHAMPAIGN — It doesn’t take long to figure out that Garrick McGee has a special regard for Cam Thomas.
McGee, the University of Illinois offensive coordinator, identified Thomas as a diamond-in-the-rough quarterback prospect when other schools backed away from the high school star while he was playing for Marian Catholic in an offense that really didn’t showcase his skills.
But McGee was a believer who saw a tall, strong athlete with excellent foot speed, big hands and a strong arm. When McGee also determined Thomas had an above-average ability to understand the game and adapt to college concepts, he offered him a scholarship.
However, the plan was to let Thomas learn in the background this season while Chayce Crouch led the Illini offense.
That plan has changed dramatically, and when Illinois takes the Memorial Stadium field at 11 a.m. Saturday, Thomas will be making his second college start.
After the Crouch experiment failed four games into the season, Jeff George Jr. emerged. But as George sputtered, the decision was made to get Thomas involved, using him in a rotation with George in games against Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Finally, last week at Purdue, Thomas got his first career start. More than that, he was in charge for most of the offensive plays and this week he will get the bulk — if not all — of the playing time against Indiana.
Thomas called it “a dream,” and McGee can hardly talk about the freshman without an “I told you so” tone to his voice.
“The experience I’m getting now helps things to slow down,” Thomas said after completing 10 of 20 attempts without an interception against the Boilermakers. “My first game things were flying around and you’re just trying to survive out there. As you get more experience, things slow down.
“The playbook is definitely coming to me now. It’s easier to understand things and know our concepts.”
Despite losing the game to Purdue, and admitting Thomas made some freshman mistakes, McGee said Thomas is on track.
“He did really well,” McGee said of Thomas’ first start. “He graded out really high with his technique and decision-making. He was competitive. He was accurate with the ball. Somebody has to make some plays for him down the field.
“He made checks during the game. I think he definitely got a chance to show what he can do if he got multiple reps. I can’t say enough about him. He has developed and he shows that he can lead our program. He was really getting after guys on the sideline trying to get them to go.”
McGee admitted this wasn’t his original plan.
“I’ve said all along, I really wanted to spoon feed him and make sure we develop him for the future and make sure we had a guy (in the pipeline)," said McGee. "I didn’t want to throw him out there when he wasn’t ready and get him busted up or put him in position where he couldn’t do well.
“Ultimately (Lovie Smith) said, ‘All right. Let’s use him.’ So we sprinkled him out there a little against Minnesota, then a little more and he just keeps growing. And for the Purdue game we just said, ‘OK, let’s let him go play.’”
Thomas was asked what he viewed as the next step in his development.
“My next step is hopefully winning games,” he said. “I want that to be the next step.
“But I’m at a loss for words because it’s something people dream about to start in the Big Ten as a freshman. I feel blessed.”