CHAMPAIGN — When Jeff George Jr. and Chayce Crouch announced in mid-January that they were leaving the Illini football program, the depth chart at the quarterback position had just one name.
Cam Thomas, who started two games as a true freshman last season, was the only scholarship quarterback on campus. That was dangerously thin, and you didn’t have to remind head coach Lovie Smith of the perilous situation.
Three weeks later, Illinois’ quarterback depth chart could look almost crowded. And no one has ruled out the possibility that a fifth-year graduate transfer might be added to the list.
Wednesday was the second of two signing dates designated by the NCAA, and Illinois added five players to the 19 it signed in December. Two of those are quarterbacks, including Peoria’s Coran Taylor, who seems to perfectly fit the mold of the dual-threat quarterback that Lovie Smith and new offensive coordinator Rod Smith prefer.
Along with Cam Thomas, the quarterback position will be manned by December signee M.J. Rivers of Frisco, Texas, Californian Matt Robinson, who signed Wednesday, Peorian Taylor, walk-on Cam Miller, who ran for a touchdown last season against Ohio State, and Drake Davis from Naperville North, who will be welcomed as a preferred walk-on.
Rod Smith, who joined Lovie Smith’s staff from Arizona after previous offensive coordinator Garrick McGee was fired, has already met face-to-face with each of the four scholarship quarterbacks, and he sounds like a coach who takes the relationship-building part of the job seriously.
Based on what Taylor told his hometown paper, the Peoria Journal-Star, McGee didn’t approach that part of the job to his liking.
“I think I like (Rod Smith) better than McGee,” Taylor said. “We worked on a lot of stuff in the hour that we had to talk.
“In the hour we had, we worked on more stuff than I ever have with McGee. We got on the board, we drew up 15 to 20 plays. With McGee, we never went over anything. (Rod Smith) stays in touch with me. McGee barely texted me.”
Rod Smith said that’s part of his job as he tries to build a competitive situation at the quarterback position.
“It’s very important,” Smith said of his effort to get to know his quarterbacks as quickly and thoroughly as possible. “This is a relationship game, man. You are not going to be successful if you’re not going to have a relationship with these guys.
“I’m the new guy. Coran isn’t the new guy. I am. I have to make sure I earn his respect. I have to make myself available to him and that he feels comfortable. He didn’t commit to me. He committed to the University of Illinois and to another coach who was here at the time.
“My job is to make sure he still feels comfortable, that me and him have the same vision and goals and that we connect.”
Taylor operated a Peoria High School offense that won the 2016 IHSA Class 5A state title. That team set Illinois state records for total points (805) and points per game (57.5). In the state title game, Taylor threw for 215 yards and two touchdowns, and he ran for 134 yards and three touchdowns.
The other recruits who signed Wednesday are:
—Matt Robinson, a 6-1, 180-pound quarterback from San Juan Capistrano, Calif. He committed early to Utah, then had a change of heart. Rod Smith, who became aware of Robinson when he coached at Arizona, called him as soon as he was hired at Illinois and got the commitment.
—Jacob Hollins, a 6-2, 215-pound linebacker from Fresno, Calif. This is a position of need, and Hollins was recruited by Illini defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson.
—Ezekiel Holmes, a slender defensive end from Wichita Falls, Texas, who is 6-5, 205 pounds. He also had offers from Air Force and Washington State.
—Kenyon Sims, a 5-11, 195-pound tailback from San Diego. This is another Rod Smith recruit who rushed for 1,396 yards and 24 touchdowns as a senior.
“I know that last year we had an excellent class,” Lovie Smith said. “I feel like this class is just as good or better. We’ll say even better.”
Smith said they already have a good jump on the 2019 and 2020 recruiting classes.
He also said he could fill one of his vacant coaching positions today and might have both filled by the end of the week. He’s still looking for a defensive line coach and a cornerbacks coach.