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Jeff George Jr. making most of opportunity at Illinois

"I feel like I embrace it," said Jeff George Jr. of playing at Illinois, same as his father. "I understand I'm following in his footsteps, but at the same time I'm trying to make a name for myself and do my own thing." Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY Sports

If everything goes according to plan, Jeff George Jr. will be Illinois' third-string quarterback in the 2017 season.

But this spring, at least, George is getting as much work and focus under center as his famous father once did. Such is the current state of the Illini, who have only eight scholarship seniors and are razor thin on the depth chart because of some key injuries. As head coach Lovie Smith said last month, the team has only had enough personnel to field "two good units" this spring.

As drills start to wind down -- Illinois will hold an open workout on Saturday in lieu of a spring game and then hold three more practices next week -- the coaching staff is trying to make the most out of what's on hand.

"I see it as an opportunity instead of a setback," offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said. "It's a very good opportunity to develop some depth and get a lot of young guys a lot of reps. Get them fundamentally sound."

The depth issues are readily apparent at quarterback, where George is the only scholarship player who is a full go. Smith has said that junior Chayce Crouch is his starter at the position, but Crouch is doing only limited work while recovering from shoulder surgery. In addition, Dwayne Lawson is expected to arrive this summer and compete for playing time. Lawson, who played for the junior college national champions, didn't sign in February because he needed to fulfill some academic requirements, but the 6-foot-6, 250-pounder is brimming with star potential.

"We're definitely going to have a lot of competition in fall camp," McGee said. "No doubt about that."

For now, though, it's pretty much George's show. And he has an opportunity to have a larger say in that competition.

"As a competitor, every time you're out on the field you want to show that you deserve to be out there and you deserve to play," George said. "I have that mindset every single rep I take."

The redshirt sophomore was pressed into four starts last year after the injuries to Wes Lunt and Crouch. His most memorable showing was a two-touchdown performance in a win against Michigan State. That came on Dads Day in Champaign as his father beamed in the stands.

Jeff George Sr. was a standout quarterback for the Illini in the late 1980s before being drafted with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1990 draft and going on to a long NFL career. His son has followed his path, leading the same Indiana high school (Warren Central) to a state title and then choosing his dad's college alma mater.

The younger George says he had a football in his hand " before I can even remember. It's just something that's in our blood." He loves having his father around to talk about the game and doesn't mind the unavoidable comparisons.

"I feel like I embrace it," he said. "I understand I'm following in his footsteps, but at the same time I'm trying to make a name for myself and do my own thing. My dad had his time, and he did amazing things with his career. But for now I'm just focusing on me and bettering myself."

The genes are evident in George's rifle arm. Yet he completed just 40 percent of his passes last season and threw five interceptions with just four touchdowns. Some of that can certainly be blamed on inexperience and a beat-up team around him.

"At this point, he understands a lot more about our offense than he did a year ago, which is fair because we got here really late last year," McGee said. "You can tell he's been around the quarterback position a lot because there's not much that gets under his skin. He's able to dust things off really fast, and that's what you've got to have as a quarterback."

George may return to being a backup in a few weeks. Crouch doesn't have as strong an arm but is more dynamic in making plays outside of the pocket. Lawson's physical gifts may eclipse his need to learn the playbook.

But as the Illini found out last year, and can see again this spring, you can never have too much depth at quarterback.