Smith names Bush as Illini starter at quarterback

By Gavin Good, Staff writer

It’s official — AJ Bush is the starting quarterback for Illinois.

Lovie Smith anointed the Virginia Tech transfer as the week one starter for the Illini on Monday, ending speculation surrounding the position’s future.

Bush didn’t join the team until the start of training camp on Aug. 3, but he quickly emerged as the favorite, taking the majority of the reps with the first team. After two seasons at Nebraska, one at Iowa Western Community College and 2017 at Virginia Tech, Bush has compiled a few telling stats.

But the Illini staff loves his athleticism and believes he can make the best decisions and throws out of the Illinois quarterback crop — which includes sophomore Cam Thomas, Matt Robinson, MJ Rivers and Coran Taylor, three true freshmen.

Smith said he was pleased with the way Bush has come into the team and taken an immediate leadership role. He said he also makes necessary plays on the practice field to back up a glowingly confident persona.

“When you’re a graduate transfer quarterback and you know this is your last season, that means something to you,” Smith said. “Really like what he will bring to the table for us offensively.”

First-year offensive coordinator Rod Smith thinks Bush gives the Illini their best chance to win and can do the most in within the new offense. Bush made throws more consistently than his fellow quarterbacks, and made fewer misreads and mistakes.

“I think it’s a culmination of he was here every day during the offseason on his dime, putting in time,” Rod Smith said. “Shows you how hungry the kid is and what he wants.”

Bush will lead what was the 126th-ranked offense in the FBS last year, but he will be able to call on the likes of sophomore standout receiver Ricky Smalling, who led the team in receiving yards (501) and veteran Mike Dudek, who started six games in 2017 before suffering a season-ending injury.

The Illini are expected to use a variety of running backs this season, but Bush is a running threat on his own — he’s agile for his size and is tough to bring down. Mike Epstein is healthy again after his breakout freshman campaign (346 yards and two touchdowns on 57 carries) was cut short with a knee injury.

Junior Reggie Corbin has speed and elusiveness in the open field, and though he only carried the ball 18 times for 78 yards last season, he’s shown comfort in the slot running routes.

The Illini are also able to call on power backs sophomore Ra’Von Bonner and junior Dre Brown, who can be tough to bring down and could be used in short yard situations regularly.

But for the moment, Bush is enjoying his new reality.

Winning the starting job is a crowning moment for the Alpharetta, Georgia native, especially since it comes in his last year of collegiate eligibility and at his fourth different school. On Saturday, he goes to work for real.

“I’ve been preparing and praying for this moment,” Bush said. “So it just feels good to actually have it, you know, come to real life. I’m at a loss for words. At the same time, I still have a lot to prove. This is just the start.”

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