Asmussen | The backup plan for Illinois QBs? Don't be the backup.

CHAMPAIGN — There are three players fighting for one job: starting quarterback at Illinois.
In 22 days, Luke Altmyer, John Paddock or Donovan Leary will take the first snap against Toledo at Memorial Stadium. Third-year coach Bret Bielema said he plans to make the decision known — at least within the team — two weeks before the Sept. 2 opener.
So the deadline is approaching. Two of them aren’t going to get it.
Then what? Well, I asked.
On Thursday, reporters had a chance to chat with the three before their nighttime workout.
My question: If you’re not the starter, what is your job?
“That’s not exactly how I view it,” said Paddock, the Ball State transfer, grandson of former Illini standout John Wright Sr. and sixth-year senior quarterback. “My job every day is bring great attitude, have the opportunity to influence and build relationships and be a leader on this team, which I feel like I’ve done a good job with so far.”
And Leary’s answer?
“Be the best player or teammate I can be,” the redshirt freshman said. “Help whoever the starter is. I’m not really thinking about that right now, just because I want to be able to put myself in the best position to play.”
In the quarterback room, you get the sense the starting spot is not a regular topic of conversation.
“It’s a village of guys from top to bottom, pushing each other, relying on, ‘Hey, what did you see here?’ and helping other guys on the field when they are out there to make the best decisions and having success,” Paddock said. “That’s how I view it.”
The quarterback position is always a story. Unless there is a returning starter.
For years in the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, Illinois had a bunch of multiyear starers.
Not so much in the 2020s.
Altmyer, Paddock or Leary will be the third new starting quarterback to open the season for Bielema. The previous two — Brandon Peters and Tommy DeVito — were transfers. There is a 2-of-3 chance that will happen for a third year in a row.
The difference this time is that none of the three has been on the field for Illinois. No big deal if QB1 plays well from the jump.
Role model
Bielema had the perfect backup quarterback the past two seasons. Art Sitkowski led the team to an historic win at Penn State in 2021 and helped beat Iowa last fall.
Without the efforts by the New Jerseyite, Illinois football wouldn’t have the swagger it does going into 2023. The victory against Penn State at Beaver Stadium was an early sign that the program had turned under Bielema. The close win against the Hawkeyes, Bielema’s alma mater and former employer, confirmed it.
Bielema wisely added Sitkowski to his coaching staff as a student assistant this season.
With his knowledge, history and personality, Sitkowski is considered by many to be a rising star in the coaching profession. A guy who could be running his own offense — or program — very soon.
The quarterbacks on the current team believe in him.
“Art’s been a phenomenal resource for all of us,” Paddock said. “He does a really good job, and he has a lot of responsibility. We trust him. Definitely look to him for advice on handling certain situations.”
“Art definitely handled himself well just being ready at any moment,” Leary said. “He stepped into the Iowa game and really took advantage of that opportunity. When Tommy (DeVito) came back, he went right back to helping Tommy watch film and making sure he is always ready.”
Knows the drill
At Mississippi, Altmyer took turns as both a starter and a backup. His mindset doesn’t change regardless of what his status is on the depth chart.
“I try to attack each and every day with excellence, no matter if I’m the best player in the country or dead last,” he said. “It’s kind of a mentality thing, how I carry myself each day. I spent two years as a backup, last year had more of a leadership role, but still was kind of that ‘one snap away from being in control of a team.’ I always stay ready whether it’s in the film room or taking advantage of every single snap in practice. That’s never going to change about me.”
Altmyer feels good about the depth Illinois has at quarterback.
“We’ve got a lot of great guys that are very, very talented and gifted,” he said. “John has played a lot of ball in his day and is very experienced, brings that to the room. Donovan, the young guy, is really, really growing and a very talented kid. His bloodlines are strong with his brother (Devin is a starter at Kentucky). He’ll have a bright future ahead of him.
In a perfect world for Illinois second-year offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr., Altmyer establishes himself early as a winning Big Ten quarterback. One with three years of eligibility.
Part B is for Leary to get on the college field for the first time in a game, preferably when the outcome isn’t on the line.
Part C is Paddock, the “break-glass-in-case-of-emergency” option. He already has wins in the FBS and is a logical choice to play if Altmyer is struggling or banged up before Leary sees real action.
As always, stay tuned.

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