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Rod Smith Arizona

Rod Smith, pictured while the quarterbacks coach at Arizona, will look to fire up the Illini offense next season as their offensive coordinator. 

CHAMPAIGN – There’s an assumption that Rod Smith would not have invited A.J. Bush into his quarterback room unless he felt he could learn the secret handshake.

There’s a fraternity of like-minded athletes behind those closed doors and Smith, Illinois’ new offensive coordinator, is president of the fraternity. He makes the rules. He limits the membership.

Right now, in the middle of March, the roster of those permitted inside the Illini quarterback room is limited to one player with a scholarship (Cam Thomas) and two walkons (Cam Miller and Charlie Reinkemeyer). Not to be harsh, but those walkons don’t matter.

This summer three freshmen will walk through the doors and each of them has potential to contribute to an Illini football team desperate for leadership and production from this all-important position. Those newcomers will include M.J. Rivers from Texas, Coran Taylor from Peoria and Matt Robinson from California.

Any one of them could turn out to be the quarterback of the future. But Rod Smith needs to find a quarterback for the present and he’d sure like to have the option of handing the job to an older, more experienced player who isn’t still stumbling his way through the early stages of college football and college life.

Enter A.J. Bush.

Bush visited campus last week and has decided he’ll give Smith that option. He’ll be arriving this summer as a graduate transfer with one year of eligibility. His previous stops have been Nebraska and Virginia Tech and he’ll arrive in Champaign as a 6-foot-4, 220-pound, 22-year-old left-hander who is viewed as more dangerous with his legs than his arm.

Because he’ll be here no more than one season, Bush is clearly not the long-range answer. But he’ll be given every opportunity to prove he’s a sensible bridge to run Smith’s up-tempo offense while the four younger quarterbacks are given time and room to grow.

Bush said he’ll have to earn the job, and technically that’s true. But only if someone blew the doors off the position in August at training camp, and if Bush struggled, there could be a youngster calling the plays on Sept. 1 against Kent State.

In all likelihood, Bush will get first crack.

The ability to process information on the fly while running Smith’s up-tempo offense will get Bush the job. The pace is quick and this is not a job for a slow decision-maker.

But can Bush throw the ball accurately? The sample size of his work at Nebraska (where he never played and got aced out by a coaching change and when Mike Riley grabbed Tulane transfer Tanner Lee) and at Virginia Tech (7 of 11 passing for 99 yards and 1 touchdown) is very limited.

But he’s a physically impressive athlete who has at least been in the major college QB pipeline.

Bush will lack experience working within Smith’s system, something Brandon Dawkins would have had moving from Arizona, where Smith coached the quarterbacks. But Dawkins, who will be a grad transfer as well, apparently has his sights set on another destination.

So it’s A.J. Bush or one of the kids, but only if they can prove to be an especially sharp protégé that can quickly grab Smith’s fancy.

Not long ago, after Jeff George, Jr., and Chayce Crouch left the program, the list of scholarship quarterbacks was one. Now it will be five.

The hope is that Illinois has increased its odds of finding one good one.

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Sports writer

Mike Monahan covers area sports for the JG-TC.

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