Aaron Bailey ready for playing time at QB

By Sean Neumann

Not much has gone according to plan for Illinois football this week. Aaron Bailey might know that best. The sophomore quarterback didn’t expect to play at all this season.

The original plan for Bailey was to have him sit out this season and redshirt in order to preserve his three remaining years of eligibility. But that plan changed Sunday when Illinois announced that starting quarterback Wes Lunt had fractured his fibula. Now, Bailey finds himself competing with senior Reilly O’Toole for Lunt’s job heading into Saturday’s game at Wisconsin.

“If Aaron Bailey could come in and help us win the football game, Aaron Bailey would be in,” head coach Tim Beckman said. “Nobody’s guaranteed any redshirts.”

Bailey said he’d rather play a few downs this season than wait another season, even if it meant losing his redshirt eligibility.

“I don’t really know what’s going on with the future,” Bailey said. “I take it day-by-day.”

Bailey has seen increased reps this week in practice, now in the second-string spot behind O’Toole while Lunt recovers.

“He’s proven,” Beckman said of Bailey. “He’s got the capabilities to run our offense. This is a blessing that we’ve got some quarterbacks that can play and that have played a little bit.”

Although Beckman has confidence in the sophomore, Bailey hasn’t played a game since last season, when he took only 25 snaps. While his playing time was limited, it came in opportune situations. Bailey said his experience playing at Soldier Field against Washington and on the road against Penn State helped him learn how to adjust to big-time atmospheres.

“I think that’s the biggest thing with any young guys,” Bailey said of the large crowds. “Once you get that out of your head, you can focus on the game you have to play.”

Bailey’s playing time often came on short-yardage situations and inside the redzone, where he ran for three touchdowns on 20 attempts, rushing for 83 total yards. Critics of Bailey say his game is one-dimensional — he will rely on running the ball — but offensive coordinator Bill Cubit believes his ability to throw will surprise defenses.

“He’s got a strong arm throwing downfield,” Cubit said. “He needs experience. He’s got to go out there and see blitzes and throw the ball on time. Sometimes he does it very well in practice, but there’s no substitute for games.”

There’s no question Bailey lacks the experience O’Toole has. His 25 plays from scrimmage are miniscule compared with O’Toole’s 308 throughout his four years at Illinois.

O’Toole started one game this season — a 45-14 loss to Nebraska — but has thrown four interceptions in less than five quarters of play. Freshman wideout Mike Dudek said Monday the Illini receivers haven’t seen many passes from Bailey or O’Toole in practice this season.

Cubit’s concern with the back-up quarterbacks is them being pressured into making mistakes due to inexperience.

“In that position, if you make mistakes, it’s usually a game-changer,” Cubit said. “It’s not like an offensive lineman who misses a block and it’s like, ‘OK, he gets tackled for minus-two.’ When you make a mistake back there, it changes field position. It changes scores.”

But Bailey said his opportunity to play last year taught him the things he could no longer do on the field that he was able to do in high school.

Now, Bailey will be more alert along the sidelines — always one play away from being the most important player on the field, where he must prove himself to Illinois fans and, most importantly, Illinois coaches, if the time comes.

“I didn’t think he was ready for the full gamut last year,” Cubit said. “And how much is he ready now? I don’t think he’s ready for the full gamut still. Some of it has to do with experience, and some of it has to do with he’s got to catch up.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @neumannthehuman.