With Tommy DeVito, Illinois might actually be able to pass the ball
Not to alarm Illinois fans, but the Fighting Illini may have found themselves a quarterback. And that’s no small accomplishment.
Illinois has been at the bottom of the Big Ten in passing yardage the past 2 years. The Illini have not been better than 10th since 2015, when a Wes Lunt-led offense finished 6th.
And even that figure is pretty deceiving. That Illinois team passed out of necessity because it was usually playing catch-up. The 2015 Illini were 11th in passing percentage and 10th in touchdown passes — hardly explosive.
To find a legitimately top-shelf Illinois quarterback, you have to go back to Nathan Scheelhaase. He led the Big Ten in passing with 272.7 yards per game as a senior in 2013.
Tommy DeVito may have what it takes to lift the Illini from their near-decade in the doldrums.
It was only a spring game. And spring games mean a hill of beans. But DeVito’s performance at Memorial Stadium Thursday night was still a shocking thing to witness from a quarterback wearing an Illinois uniform.
DeVito completed 16 of 20 passes for 248 yards and 3 touchdowns. One of those incompletions was a drop that would have added another 39 yards and a touchdown to his total.
We cannot discount the possibility that this says more about the Illinois secondary than it does DeVito. The Illini are losing their best safety, Kerby Joseph, to the NFL. DeVito might not be the only quarterback toasting them in 2022.
But that also doesn’t mean DeVito won’t be making some noise against defenses that are not his own.
Glimpses of promise
DeVito started for the Orange as a sophomore in 2019, and performed as you might expect from a first-year starter on a below-average team. There was some good, some bad, and a whole lot of in-between.
For a 3-game stretch in the middle of that season, he looked secure as Syracuse’s starter of the future. Against Western Michigan, Holy Cross and NC State, DeVito averaged 285 yards per game while throwing 9 touchdowns and an interception.
He only crossed the 200-yard mark once in Cuse’s remaining 6 games, throwing for 289 yards and 3 touchdowns in a 58-27 loss to Boston College.
The ups-and-downs continued in 2020. DeVito threw 4 touchdowns and 2 interceptions in 4 games before a season-ending injury.
He earned the starting job again in 2021, but was replaced after throwing just 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions in Syracuse’s first 3 games.
In short, DeVito’s career has had too many stops and starts to definitively show us anything.
Bret Bielema offense the right fit?
For DeVito, expectations could be everything.
At Syracuse, the quarterback is expected to be the creator. The Orange were 28th nationally in pass attempts in 2018 and 35th in 2020.
In a run-heavy Bielema offense, the quarterback is a facilitator.
While Bielema was at Arkansas, the Razorbacks never finished above 65th nationally in pass attempts. In the lone season he had a legitimate NFL quarterback at Wisconsin — Russell Wilson in 2011 — Bielema’s Badgers were 99th in pass attempts.
DeVito simply needs to be able to answer the bell when his number is called. And he certainly looked capable of that role on Thursday.
The question is whether he’ll be able to do even more. Because the quarterback situation in the Big Ten West is, to say the least, pretty uncertain.
The division of floundering QBs
It would not take much for DeVito to establish himself as one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten West. For nearly every team in the division, the position is their most glaring offensive question mark.
The lone exception is Purdue, where Aidan O’Connell established himself as the Big Ten’s best quarterback behind Ohio State’s CJ Stroud last season. And it seems possible that Nebraska has a solution in Texas transfer Casey Thompson, provided Scott Frost doesn’t find a way to screw it up.
But behind those 2, there’s no clear-cut 3rd-best quarterback in the West.
Wisconsin’s Graham Mertz is average on a good day. Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan has gotten worse for 2 straight seasons. Iowa quarterbacks Spencer Petras and Alex Padilla are Iowa quarterbacks. Northwestern’s quarterback play was a tire fire in 2021, and the Wildcats still haven’t found a hose.
If DeVito can be the No. 3 QB in the West, it should be enough to get the Illini to a bowl game this year. And that would stand as a pretty good accomplishment for Year 2 of the Bielema rebuild.