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Fighting Illini Football, the Transfer Portal and the Quarterback Position: A History

This ain’t our first rodeo

NFL: USA TODAY Sports-Archive Peter Brouillet-USA TODAY Sports

As Illinois looks to follow up last year’s breakout season with the final Big Ten West championship, their offense is in the hands of a transfer quarterback. This is nothing new for the Fighting Illini; since Chayce Crouch led them to a Week 2 victory in 2017, only one domestic player (i.e., recruited to Illinois straight out of high school) has started a victory for the Illini at quarterback.

Think about who that is and take a guess in the comments; the answer will be hidden down there!

While this is common today for all college football teams, Illinois has actually been doing this on a pretty regular basis since 1980! There’s no school in the Big Ten with a longer history of transfer quarterbacks than the Fighting Illini.

Mike White threw the Big Ten for a loop with his strategy of bringing in junior college players from Cali and letting them sling the ball all over the field. With only a couple exceptions, all his QBs were transfers. Bret Bielema, while not chucking the ball deep with regularity, is following in those footsteps of turning to transfer QBs to helm the offense. Following up on the heels of Touchdown Big Time Tommy DeVito will likely be Mississippi State transfer Luke Altmeyer and his likely backup is Illinois State transfer John Paddock.

Let’s take a look back at the transfer QBs at Illinois from Mike White era to today.

The Good

Jeff George (1988-89)

In 1986, George had a pretty ugly freshman season at Purdue, tallying 4 TDs and 15!!! interceptions in 11 games. After the Boilermakers fired their OC, he decided to transfer and originally picked Jimmy Johnson and Miami, but switched his commitment to my beloved Illini and led Illinois to back to back bowl appearances. After leading Illinois to a 10-2 record and a Citrus Bowl win over Virginia, he opted to forgo his senior season and the Colts traded up to pick him #1 overall in the NFL Draft.

Tony Eason (1981-82)

Tony Eason was a real gunslinger. He threw for 6,608 yards and 37 TDs in two seasons under center for Illinois and averaged a whopping 39 attempts per game before being drafted 15th by the New England Patriots and leading them to the 1985 Superb Owl. (Editor’s note: this was the only Super Bowl started by a former Fighting Illini QB. It went...poorly)

Illinois won 7 games overall and 6 conference games both years he started for Illinois.

Tommy DeVito (2022)

What can I say about Touchdown Big Time Tommy? This entertaining Jersey boy, originally from Syracuse, led Illinois to an 8-5 record while throwing for 15 touchdowns and only 4 interceptions. He also added 6 rushing touchdowns to the mix.

Mixed Bag

Dave Wilson (1980)

The first of Mike Whites transfer QBs and the first of several that would be first round NFL picks, Dave Wilson threw for 19 TDs and 3,154 yards in one season at Illinois. Despite his success with passing stats, Illinois finished 3-7-1 (3-5) in 1980.

Wilson spent the entire 1980 season in a legal battle with the Big Ten and the NCAA to remain eligible:

Before White had even coached a game, his starting quarterback Dave Wilson was ruled ineligible by the Big Ten because he had played one snap in his first season at his junior college before breaking his hand (therefore constituting a full season, making him a senior, as which he lacked the credits to qualify).

Wilson sued the Big Ten and the NCAA and fought tooth and nail to get his eligibility restored. He was able to gain eligibility for the 1980 opener pending a trial and literally fought the Big Ten in various courts for the whole season. Though Illinois went 3-7-1, WIlson was a bonafide superstar and broke virtually all of the Illinois passing record book. His 621 passing yards against Ohio State still constitute a single-game Big Ten record. However, he finally lost his legal battle in the 1981 offseason when a federal judge ruled that he was never eligible to play for Illinois.

Exhausted, Wilson had decided to go to the NFL anyway. It was Mike White’s first season in Champaign.


Jon Beutjer (2002-04)

Beutjer began his career under Kirk Ferentz at iowa. He decided to leave iowa after his roommate gave him a concussion during an altercation. After a solid 2002 season, which saw Illinois finish 5-7 (4-4) he regressed slightly in his final two seasons due to injuries and the maybe the fact that Illinois was just plain awful.

Wes Lunt (2014-16)

Expectations were high when the central Illinois high school kid returned home after a freshman year as an Oklahoma State. Lunt probably was treated a little harshly by the fanbase as he was a solid QB when healthy, but he had some trouble staying healthy and playing for three coaches in three seasons probably didn’t help his development (Beckman/Cubit/Lovie). He threw for 36 TDs against only 12 interceptions in his three years at Illinois, but Illinois’ best finish in those three years was 6-7 and Reilly O’toole was the QB for the best wins that season.

AJ Bush (2018)

Illinois was the third and final stop in Bush’s career after being on Nebraska's roster out of high school and then playing for the Virginia Tech Hokies. Bush was not much of a passer, garnering only 1,413 yards in 10 games at Illinois, but he ran for 733 including a 187 yard performance against his former team, the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

Brandon Peters (2019-21)

The oft-injured Peters was a conundrum. When he was good, he was very good and when he was bad, it got ugly. He came to Illinois after two years in Michigan. He did lead Illinois to the inspirational Redbox Bowl in 2019 when he threw for 1,884 yards and 18 touchdowns. En route to that bowl, he hit Daniel Barker for the game-winner in the largest comeback in Illini football history in East Lansing. He also threw the 2pt conversion pass that won the greatest game in the history of the universe against Penn State in 2021.

The Ugly

Scott Mohr (1987)

MIke White began his career at Illinois with a 3-7-1 campaign led by a transfer QB and ended it the same way. Mohr threw for 1,436 yards and 7 TDs and 7 INTs in his lone season at Illinois.

Art Sitkowski (2021-22)

While at reutjers, Sir Artur posted the worst passing season in recent memory as a true freshman; a season so bad that you can’t even blame him as much as the coaching staff for continuing to play him as he put up these numbers.

Art brought his 8 career TDs and 20 career INTs to Champaign. He did fare better taking care of the ball at Illinois and pretty much did what Bert asked of him, which was to hand the ball off.

Sitkowski was 1-1 as a starter, but came off the bench in the first quarter against three Big Ten teams and went 2-1 in those games.


Then you have Shane Lamb, who somehow managed to never see the field, even at Illinois. Dual-threat Dwayne Lawson never cleared admissions, and despite all the rumors and innuendo, Khalil Tate stayed put at Arizona instead of reuniting with his OC in Champaign.

The all-time greatest footnote? That would be Pete DiNovo, the quarterback Lovie picked up while in Tampa to play South Florida:

He joined the team three weeks into the season, then left not too long after.

If I forgot someone, it is probably because they sucked.