CHAMPAIGN — Being the new guy is never easy.
Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters dealt with that situation last year as he joined the Fighting Illini football program just before the start of training camp.
Peters came in and made an immediate impact. He started in 10 of the team’s 12 games, going 6-4 and leading the Fighting Illini to their first bowl game, the Redbox Bowl, since the 2014 season.
“Even through he was new, he had played a lot of football,’’ Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. “he was one of our older guys. Extremely intelligent and bright. He was a new guy that jumped right in and gained the trust of the football team right away. He moved into that role, starting quarterback, right away. I loved everything about what he did.’’
Smith pointed out that Illinois lost both of its games that Peters missed because of injuries, falling to Michigan and Northwestern.
“We are different without him being out there,’’ he said.
Not only is keeping Peters on the field a big deal for Illinois, but so is an extra year of experience.
“Just learning a new system and trying to get comfortable with it, that was the biggest thing I tried to do last year,’’ Peters said. “Have a year under your belt, you feel more comfortable. We have added some new stuff, and we have taken some stuff out. There is always some moving part and changing parts. For the most part, it’s the same.’’
But the thing that Peters says is the most important piece of the puzzle for him and this offense is having good relationship with offensive coordinator Rod Smith.
“I think it’s always important to have constant communication with the OC,’’ Peters said. “Telling him what you are seeing … what you are thinking and what you are comfortable with, while also finding out what he is thinking and what he is comfortable with — always having that constant communication is good.
“I don’t think it has changed much from where I first got here.’’
In his first season at Illinois, Peters completed 55 percent of his passes (152-of-275) for 1,884 yards and 18 touchdowns and the senior from Avon, Ind., rushed for 213 yards and three touchdowns while missing two games.
“The biggest thing that coach Rod wants to work on is the completion percentage,’’ Peters said. “I think if I get that up a little bit, it will be easier for us to move the chains.’’
That would be a good thing for Illinois, which average just 17 first downs a game and the Fighting Illini had the ball nearly 8 minutes less than their opponents.
It should help Peters that he is one of nine returning starters on the offensive side of the ball, including four of the five offensive linemen, and his top two receivers in Josh Imatorbhebhe (33 receptions, 634 yards, 9 TDs) and Donny Navarro (27-345, 2 TDs). Additionally, Illinois has brought in transfer wide receivers Brian Hightower, Khmari Thompson and Desmond Dan Jr. along with tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe and tight end Luke Ford is eligible after being required to sit out for NCAA transfer rules.
“We have a few more weapons that he will be throwing to,’’ said coach Lovie Smith. “Everything around him is better and it should make his game better, too.’’
Maybe the best thing about some of his new options is their size — Hightower, Dan Jr. 6-foot-3, Daniel Imatorbhebhe are all 6-foot-3, while Ford is 6-foot-6.
“It makes it easier to throw the ball at a higher plane,’’ said Peters of having that kind of size in his receivers. “They can use their size as leverage … we can use that to our advantage.
“For those guys, it’s getting comfortable with their reeds and what they need to do in the offense, so that they can play at a faster pace.’’
During the offseason, Peters spent time working with personal quarterback trainer out of Detroit, who was able to hook Peters up with former St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner. Peters went of Arizona and spent a weekend working out with Warner.
“There were a lot of takeaways,’’ Peters said. “Whenever you have the time to sit in front of a guy who has done it at the highest level, he’s a Hall of Famer, he’s won a Super Bowl. I was taking everything he had to say. He had a lot of great knowledge for me being a guy who had done it, led a team to a Super Bowl, what is expected out of you at the QB position.”
But, was there one main takeaway from Warner.
“He is all about footwork and having your back foot planted when you throw,’’ Peters said. “That is one of the biggest things for me that I have had to work on as I progressed, getting my back foot planted and being more accurate with the ball. Hearing what he had to say about the techniques of that is going to be good to translate that to the game.’’
The first test for Peters and the Fighting Illini will come next Friday when Illinois travels to Madison, Wis., to take on 16th-rated Wisconsin Badgers. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. The game can be seen on the Big Ten Network and it can be heard on the Fighting Illini Sports Network include local stations, WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL-FM 102.1.