CHAMPAIGN – Illini offensive coordinator Garrick McGee has watched every bit of film from Friday night’s dismal performance against Nebraska. He’s watched it over and over and over.
He has statistical information beyond what the average fan has. And he is around the players every day, so he knows the nuanced things that can make something like a quarterback change tricky.
But it isn’t tricky because he saw the same game so many disheartened fans saw. The eye test was plenty.
So, yes, Illinois will make a quarterback change this week going into the Big Ten road opener at 11 a.m., Saturday vs. Iowa at Kinnick Stadium.
Head coach Lovie Smith said Jeff George, Jr., is now No. 1 on his QB depth chart and true freshman Cam Thomas is moved into the No. 2 slot. That means Chayce Crouch, who started the first four games of the season, has slid to No. 3.
McGee said that with Illinois 13th in Big Ten passing offense and 14th in total offense, something has to change.
“(The change) is definitely necessary to give us the opportunity to push the ball down field and use all of our weapons,” McGee said.
“Chayce was not playing the way everyone anticipated him playing. He has a little more development to do in terms of seeing the field and keeping his eyes on the coverage. His eyes tend to drop down and he misses a lot of guys running open down the field. And he understands that.”
Lovie mentioned two goals they hope to realize with the quarterback change.
One is to beef up the passing component so that the offense has more balance.
The other is to take advantage of one of the team’s most talented position groups – wide receiver – and get the ball into the hands of play-makers like Mike Dudek and Malik Turner more often.
Dudek, Illinois’ leading receiver and a guy the coaches acknowledge is one of the team’s most dangerous play-makers, was targeted just twice against Nebraska
McGee said it’s been a frustrating process.
“With this many young kids on the field, it’s hard to put together 12 and 13-play drives without someone screwing something up. So you need that level of changing the field – a 20-yard gain, a 30-yard gain – to take the pressure off everybody.
“We have capable receivers all over the field who can get open, so we just think it can take some of the pressure off these young kids, in particular our offensive front, which has to play better. But some chunk yardage would help instead of trying to inch our way down the field.”
Just as interesting as the elevation of George to the No. 1 spot is the move of freshman Cam Thomas to No. 2.
Thomas attended Marian Catholic last season and also won the East Suburban Catholic Conference 200-meter title in track.
He was suspended last week but has returned with the full blessing of the coaching staff.
“We’re really happy with him,” McGee said. “He could be one of the fastest guys we have and his big hands give him an opportunity to really spin the ball. He’s taller, so he can see what’s going on. We love him.”
As for the suspension, McGee said “he didn’t get into trouble or anything like that. It was just something we’re not going to put up with and it was a message to him and everyone else.”
McGee said the simple eye test told him change was needed. “I was at the game Friday, too. I saw what our fans saw. And that’s not good enough, not just with the quarterback but our offensive front has to play better to give our running backs and receivers a chance to get out and make plays.”
McGee has been criticized on post-game call-in shows for his play-calling. He said it hasn’t been easy because he’s trying to factor in mistakes the freshmen will make and the skills some of them still don’t have perfected.
“There was a play in the (Nebraska) game after our defensive turnover. We had it down there on about the 15-yard line and they were in a certain defense and we were able to get to a play we had practiced over and over.
“But it was (freshman tackle) Larry Boyd and (freshman guard) Alex Palczewski on the same side of the offensive line and (freshman tight end) Louis Dorsey and (freshman running back) Ra’Von Bonner running and all four of them did the wrong thing.
“And you try to remember that those kids were all in high school last year and there are not many teams that have four of them right at the point of attack.
“The process is hard for everybody, particularly the play-caller.”
NOTES – The kickoff for the Oct. 14 home game against Rutgers has been set for 11 a.m. The game will be televised on the Big Ten Network.
Saturday is to be the 73rd meeting between the Illini and Hawkeyes in a series that dates back to 1899. Illinois leads the all-time series 38-32-2 and has a slim 18-17-2 edge in Iowa City.