Freshman Bailey taking playing time in stride

Only five games into his collegiate career, freshman quarterback Aaron Bailey is fulfilling a dream.

“My dream has always been to play as a true freshman,” he said. “When I got the opportunity to play, I tried to grasp it.”

The spotlight has been on Bailey since he stepped foot on campus, despite being third on the depth chart.

The Illini have mainly used Bailey in a “Wildcat” formation, with the intent of getting the freshman to run the ball between the tackles. Bailey is alone in typical shotgun formation with tight ends lined directly behind the tackles and two receivers split out wide. Bailey motions and one receiver streaks across the formation. When the ball is snapped, the quarterback can either hand off on the jet sweep or keep up the middle.

In limited action through five games, Bailey has made the most of his opportunities. The freshman is only one of three for three yards passing but has carried 14 times for 77 yards and three touchdowns. His touchdown tally is tied with running back Donovonn Young for the team lead.

With the success of the Wildcat formation, offensive coordinator Bill Cubit has turned to Bailey in clutch situations to gain short yardage. In the team’s loss to Washington on Sept. 14, with the Illini trailing by two touchdowns, Bailey and the Wildcat package were called on for a crucial fourth-and-one from the Washington 10-yard line.

Bailey faked to a sweeping Josh Ferguson and took the ball off the left side. Seeing a hole open up after Ted Karras and Jon Davis paved the way, Bailey accelerated into the end zone untouched to bring the Illini within a touchdown.

“It was clutch time in the game, I was just trying to get the first down,” Bailey said. “But thank God it opened up and I was able to score.”

Despite being five years apart, comparisons can be made between Bailey and incumbent starter Nathan Scheelhaase on the field. Both players were four-star recruits coming out of high school and are primarily seen as dual-threat quarterbacks. In addition, both saw action as freshmen, albeit Scheelhaase had a redshirt year before he was put on the field.

“He’s a mature kid, coming from an awesome family,” Scheelhaase said. “When you have a bunch of those things that help get you ready jumping into an environment like this and having that hype and expectations, it definitely gets him in the mindset that he needs to have.”

“Nate is a great teacher,” Bailey added. “He’s a future coach, I see.”

Although Bailey is still learning the whole offense — he ran the regular offense in mop-up duty in the fourth quarter of a win against Miami (Ohio) — he has carved out a niche for playing time in the right situations. Bailey has come to expect to be called on in short-yardage scenarios, even though he doesn’t know beforehand when he’ll be brought in.

Even with a relative small sample of playing time this season behind the senior Scheelhaase, senior wide receiver Ryan Lankford warned Bailey not to be yearning for the future too quickly.

“The seniors always told me, ‘Hey, it’s going to go by fast,’” Lankford said. “I was just like, ‘Shut up, whatever. I got four years here. It’s not going to go by fast.’ We’re almost halfway through the season now of my senior year, so I just told the guys, ‘Enjoy it. Soak it all in. These are going to be the greatest four years of your life.’”

Stephen can be reached at [email protected] and @steve_bourbon.