When depth charts were released at this time a year ago, Brad Smith and Jon Beutjer were nervous. Both were in heated battles for starting quarterback jobs. This year, Smith and Beutjer can rest easy thanks to terrific 2002 campaigns.
Smith will lead Missouri against Beutjer’s Illinois team at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. Both teams are more familiar with each other, but that won’t make stopping Smith and Beutjer easier.
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said the stability at quarterback changes the complexion of this year’s matchup.
“A year ago we both went into this game with question marks at quarterback for obvious reasons,” Pinkel said. “We came up with some answers and they came up with some and a great player (Beutjer).”
After moving past senior Kirk Farmer in preseason practice, Smith, who was a redshirt freshman, entered last season’s opener against the Illini as the Tigers’ starter. Few knew what to expect from Smith, but when the game was over, it was evident that Illinois had little clue what it was up against.
Smith torched Illinois for 290 total yards and a rushing touchdown. Questions about Missouri’s quarterback position were gone and Smith was on his way to one of the most prolific seasons a freshman quarterback has had. Smith finished the season with 2,333 yards and 15 touchdowns passing and 1,029 yards and seven touchdowns rushing.
Illinois coach Ron Turner said the Illini have a better idea of what Smith can do, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they can stop him.
“He’s a great player, that’s obvious,” Turner said. “We found that out last year. Going into it as a redshirt freshman, we didn’t know a whole lot about him. We had a good idea of what they wanted to do offensively, but we didn’t know a whole lot about him.
“He showed that that game against us was not a fluke. He played great against us and continued to do that all year. He is bigger and strong and faster right now, so we expect him to be a tremendous player.”
The returning talent around him is an advantage for Smith. He has his line from a year ago intact and has big-play threats such as Zack Abron and several experienced wide receivers.
Smith remembers being jittery going in to his first start, but said not much has changed in the way the Tigers are preparing for Saturday.
“Our game plan is that we have to do everything like we did before,” Smith said. “Teams can change quarterbacks or whatever, but it’s just about our offense and our defense and special teams executing what we know how to do. We have to make it happen no matter what other teams do, so our focus is only on what Missouri can do.”
Illinois’ questions at quarterback were not answered until about midway through the 2002 season. Beutjer, who transferred from Iowa, battled Dustin Ward in spring and summer practice to replace Kurt Kittner. Turner named Ward the starter Aug. 20, saying that it was a close competition.
Ward started against Missouri, but struggled mightily for the first three quarters. He fumbled twice, threw an interception and finished the day 9-for-21 for 124 yards.
Beutjer entered the game early in the fourth quarter and led the Illini on a 67-yard scoring drive, capping it with an 18-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Lloyd with 8:49 to play. Beutjer, though, did not make enough of an impression on Turner to be named the starter the following week against Southern Mississippi. In that game, however, he relieved Ward again.
Beutjer made his first start against Arkansas State the next week and led the Illini to their first win. Beutjer started seven games last season and solidified himself as the starter heading in to 2003.
Beutjer led the Big Ten Conference in passing yards per game (228.3) and had four 300-yard passing games. He enters this season a Davey O’Brien Award candidate for the nation’s best quarterback and with little doubt about his job security.
Pinkel said Beutjer is one of the few sure things the Illini have going in to the game.
“There are a lot of unknowns that create some anxiety from my standpoint,” Pinkel said. “I think we will see a great football team. Beutjer’s a great player and he played great at the end of the year. He really throws well and they probably feel very good that they have an established quarterback, a high level quarterback.”
Whereas a year ago quarterback was the main concern for the Illini, this season they have to worry about the rest of the offense. Illinois lost its top four receivers, and the returning receivers have one catch to their name (made by Kendrick Jones).
Antoineo Harris, Illinois’ leading rusher a year ago, graduated, and starting fullback Carey Davis will miss the first three weeks after he needed surgery on his left knee Monday.
Pinkel and Turner are known for developing elite quarterbacks. Pinkel helped develop Mark Brunell, Chris Chandler and Billy Joe Hobert. Turner has coached Jeff Garcia, Jim Harbaugh and Rodney Peete at some stage in their careers.
Missouri and Illinois have many questions entering the opener, but at least for this year, quarterback isn’t one of them.
RAY GUY WATCH LIST: Senior punter Brock Harvey has been named to the watch list for the Ray Guy Award as the nation’s best punter.
Harvey averaged 42.5 yards per punt, ranking 19th in the NCAA a year ago.