CHAMPAIGN — Wilton Speight was out with an injury. John O’Korn was ineffective. It was time for Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh to introduce his first quarterback recruit — redshirt freshman Brandon Peters — to the masses in Ann Arbor.
So that’s what Harbaugh did during the second quarter of a 2017 game against Rutgers, and Peters — a former Indiana Mr. Football and a top-five QB in the national Class of 2016 — delivered. He was as advertised and then some, leading three consecutive touchdown drives. Fans went wild. A star was born.
Except, not really. For Peters, now 21, things fizzled after four starts, the last one in an Outback Bowl loss to South Carolina. A season later, Michigan had coveted Mississippi transfer Shea Patterson running the offense while Peters — disillusioned, it’s fair to say — watched.
“Not getting any playing time last year was hard,” he said. “It kind of sucked just sitting on the sideline just watching and knowing that you could be out there.”
No more sitting. No more watching. No more “sucking.” If Peters, a graduate transfer to Illinois, is the real deal, he’ll start this season. And he’ll have a chance to do it for two years — despite the presence of freshman arrival Isaiah Williams, one of the top recruiting “gets” under fourth-year coach Lovie Smith. A who’s who of college football including Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State offered scholarships to Williams, though many of those schools foresaw a position switch.
If there’s a quarterback competition this training camp at Illinois — and it’s a big “if,” because all early signs point to Peters — then it’s simply the most important one of Peters’ football career. It’s now or never.
“It definitely is,” he said. “I’ve got a big opportunity ahead of me. I’ve got a lot to prove, as well, to a lot of people.”
To Harbaugh, for one. And more important: to his new head coach and to Illini offensive coordinator Rod Smith.
Peters has the arm talent to excel even in a run-first offense, which opens up chances for one-on-one routes to wide receivers. A quarterback who can take advantage of big-play opportunities would be a sight for sore eyes at Memorial Stadium.
“Eventually, you need to be able to throw the football,” Lovie Smith said.
The former Bears coach hasn’t named a starter, but he made more than one statement Tuesday at the team’s on-campus media day that seemed to be revealing.
“Isaiah Williams is going to be a heck of a football player,” Smith said, “but that pressure for him to come here and turn around our program, he doesn’t have that type of pressure.”
Smith — who referred to Williams as “our future” — also said this:
“To be able to get a guy that’s played football, that’s been there before, in Brandon Peters, that’s the ideal situation to have at your quarterback position. Brandon is calm, doesn’t get too worked up about things that may not go his way or too hyped up when things really do go his way. And just to show a young, talented [player] in Isaiah Williams how to do it, that’s the ideal quarterback room that you would like: a guy that’s done it, and another guy to come up with a good mentor, good tutor, good teacher.”
Peters has had a wild ride of a college career already, just from a learning standpoint. Due to staff changes at Michigan and now his own departure to Illinois, he’s nose deep in yet another playbook — his fifth, he estimates — replete with new verbiage.
The way he sees it, he’s made for the task.
“Being around it all for this long?” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything I couldn’t handle.”
Grad transfers: Peters is joined by ex-Alabama offensive lineman Richie Petitbon — grandson and namesake of the former Bears safety — and a trio from USC in defensive end Oluwole Betiku and receivers Josh Imatorbhebhe and Trevon Sidney. Locking down a starting spot with the Wolverines, Crimson Tide or Trojans is harder to do than it is with the Illini. All five could start the season opener against Akron.
Lovie’s defense: The Illini don’t have a defensive coordinator. That job belongs to Smith, who will take all the blame if what has been a bottom-feeder unit fails to improve.
“If things aren’t going perfectly and exactly the way you like, you would like to have more of a hands-on effect on the football team, and that’s where I am right now,” he said. “I’ve flat-out loved it.”
Walls of flesh: With four starters back — and Petitbon, who played in six games last season at Alabama, the likely fifth — the offensive line is in decent shape. The defensive front, which lost its best player, Bobby Roundtree, to an offseason spinal-cord injury, is more of a question mark.
Betiku could step into Roundtree’s end spot. Other guys, like Jamal Milan and Jamal Woods, have been through the Big Ten meat grinder before — but the defensive stats have been atrocious.
“We just need to go out there and give it our all,” Milan said. “We’ll be better.”
Hands on deck: The receiving corps, led by former Brother Rice star Ricky Smalling, has gone from sorry to — relatively speaking — stacked.
Imatorbhebhe, a big target with extraordinary leaping ability, looks like an impact player on the outside. Sidney and returnee Dominic Stampley give the team two true threats in the slot. And the explosive, strong-handed Smalling is terrific.
“I feel great,” Smalling said. “I feel like a complete, all-around receiver who’s going to elevate his game this year.”
Special brew: Towering Australian Blake Hayes — all 6-6, 230 pounds of him — is one of the best and biggest punters in the country. Redshirt freshman kicker Caleb Griffin has stolen the show early in camp, though.
Also unusually large for his position at 6-3, 210, Griffin, who was a four-sport athlete in high school, has a giant personality to go with it. In one silly moment this week, he “dribbled” a football through a swath of teammates — who were doubled over and catching their breath after a drill — like a point guard breaking a press. He even finished with a pretend layup. Good news: He can really kick it, too.
GET TO KNOW HIM
When Petitbon was little, he called his grandfather — a four-time Pro Bowl player with the Bears who played for the team from 1959 to 1968 — “Grandpa Football.” Grandson is still trying to make a name for himself.
At this time last year, Petitbon, a rising junior at Alabama, thought he had a decent shot to win a starting job with the superpower Crimson Tide. For the second year in a row, in fact, he entered camp believing he was in the hunt.
“Obviously, it didn’t happen for me as far as starting,” he said. “But I did a lot of things there to be a leader, find my niche, compete and make the team better. That’s what I’m excited about doing here. I’ve learned a lot about how to compete and how to win.”
Petitbon sees Lovie Smith and Nick Saban as being cut from the same cloth.
“Both are great leaders who run extremely tight ships,” he said. “I mean every detail, whether it’s tucking in your jersey on the field or wearing a hat in meetings or earrings in meetings. They have very similar mentalities.”
CIRCLE THE DATES
Oct. 5 at Minnesota: Think the Gophers might have a tiny taste of revenge in their mouths after getting their doors blown off 55-31 last year in Champaign?
Oct. 12 vs. Michigan: Brandon Peters, meet Jim Harbaugh. Jim Harbaugh, say hello to Brandon Peters. Wait, you two already know each other, don’t you?
Nov. 30 vs. Northwestern: It’s not difficult at all to envision a scenario in which a 5-6 Illini squad needs one more “W” — against the rival Wildcats — to sneak into the bowl picture. Something to play for!