Tight ends provide new dimension for Peters, offense

Illinois+quarterback+Brandon+Peters+launches+a+pass+during+the+game+against+Rutgers+on+Nov.+2%2C+2019.

Quentin Shaw

Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters launches a pass during the game against Rutgers on Nov. 2, 2019.

By Carson Gourdie, Assistant Sports Editor

Illinois fans are used to a lot of things — Big Ten golf titles, an occasional upset in football, head-scratching losses. But, the Illini faithful are getting a special gift this fall: the return of an experienced quarterback. 

For the first time since Wes Lunt returned to campus in 2016, the Illini will not have a quarterback battle, knowing for sure who they’ll start on opening weekend against the Wisconsin Badgers: Brandon Peters. Coming back for his senior season, Peters looks to lead head coach Lovie Smith’s most talented team yet amid an unprecedented season.

But, it’s more than just Brandon Peters, who led the team to a winning record in games he started. Offensive coordinator Rod Smith, whose arrival sparked a sluggish offensive under Garrick McGee, returns for his third season with the team. Since Smith’s arrival, Illinois’ points per game has risen from 15.4 in 2017 to 26.7 last season.

Smith, a pioneer of the spread, up-tempo offense, got his start under his former college head coach, Richard Rodriguez, the former West Virginia and Michigan head coach. A quarterback in college, Smith has coached the position since getting into the profession, working with numerous dual-threat quarterbacks such as West Virginia’s Pat White and Michigan’s Denard Robinson. Peters gives Smith a different dimension to work with. 

“Every quarterback has their own style, their own skillset,” Rod Smith said. “Brandon is different from those guys. Brandon is a guy who can beat you with his arm first and hopefully his mind. He just has to keep getting better.”

Peters last season put up respectable numbers when it came to the passing game, although he battled inconsistencies at times. The Michigan transfer finished with 18 touchdowns passes and eight interceptions despite missing a few games due to injuries. 

Despite his larger frame compared to other quarterbacks Rod Smith has worked with, Peters played his best when he was able to get involved in the running game, which regularly caught defenses off guard. With Lovie Smith, being productive by any means necessary is the only thing that matters with Peters. 

“The design for him is to move the offense,” Lovie Smith said of Peters’ role. “Whether that be passing, I like the plan of passing and running when it needs to be. He can do both. He can make all of the throws. If our offensive line protects him, we can do some things.” 

Although Peters’ running ability came as a pleasant surprise to the Illini, Rod Smith doesn’t expect to transform him into an option quarterback. 

“Design run plays would definitely surprise the defense,” Rod Smith said. “He’s more of a read and react when the defense overcommits. I can’t think of one design quarterback run I called last year. If he saw something and (decided to run) himself, he has the ability to do that.”

Aside from Peters himself, Rod Smith has plenty of tools to produce Lovie’s most productive offense yet. Wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe returns after a nine-touchdown season, alongside the likes of Donny Navarro and Trevon Sidney. The most underrated position group for the offense, however, is the tight ends. 

Rod Smith and Brandon Peters will have the chance to utilize a three-headed monster with Daniel Barker, Georgia transfer Luke Ford and USC transfer Daniel Imatorbhebhe to throw to. 

“You guys haven’t seen him play, but I’ll throw Daniel Imatorbhebhe in,” said Lovie Smith of the tight ends’ ability to make plays this year. “Barker has been outstanding since he’s been here. Luke Ford, being from the state, people know quite a bit about him, and I think everything you think he is, is what he will end up being.”

Barker, who scored the game-winning touchdown against Michigan State on the road last year, is the most productive and experienced tight end coming back this season. The Florida native finished with 273 receiving yards and four touchdowns last season as a sophomore. While Barker might have the best track record so far, the other two showcase so much potential. 

After being denied a waiver to play last season by the NCAA, Ford, a four-star recruit and former Georgia tight end, will finally get the chance to get game action after failing to gain traction under Kirby Smart. At 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds, Ford provides Peters a massive target down the field. 

As for Imatorbhebhe, the older brother of Josh, he has had a wild collegiate career, attending Florida, USC and now Illinois. Although the tight end has struggled to stay healthy, he has shown potential. A member of the 2017 USC Rose Bowl team, Imatorbhebhe was an All-Pac 12 honorable mention after finishing with 250 yards and four touchdowns. 

In just under a month, Illinois will travel up north to take on the Wisconsin Badgers, considered by many to have one of the best defenses in the Big Ten. With no non-conference games leading up to conference play, the trip to Madison could be daunting. 

“We don’t have the opportunity to knock some rust off,” Rod Smith said. “We have to be sharp, going against one of the best teams in the conference. We did some good things against them last year. We got a lot of guys coming back, so hopefully we can lean (on them).”

 

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