Asmussen | The starting quarterback at Illinois is ...

INDIANAPOLIS — Bret Bielema took questions on all sorts of topics at Wednesday’s Big Ten Media Days, including the recently released “Barbie” movie.
(For the record, the father of two young daughters hasn’t seen it ... yet.)
The third-year Illinois coach was asked about hazing, new analyst hire Jim Leonhard and keeping his team on a winning track.
Other coaches were quizzed about their quarterbacks during Wednesday’s session at Lucas Oil Stadium. Not Bielema.
Until the post-podium scrum with mostly local reporters. I asked the last question in the 10-minute block: Five weeks before the opener, how are you feeling about Luke Altmyer and the rest of the quarterbacks?
“I think the quarterback room is as deep as I’ve had it since I’ve been there,” Bielema said.
Altmyer is a first-year transfer from Mississippi and the heavy favorite to start the season opener against Toledo on Sept. 2. No announcement has been made.
“We were in our staff meeting the other day and we have these principles we kind of live by, four things walking in, four things walking out,” Bielema said. “(Student assistant) Art Sitkowski is in that meeting for the first time. One of our things is, ‘Be here.’ No matter where you’re at, when you come in the Smith Center, you’ve got to concentrate on being there.”
Bielema had former backup Sitkowski talk about his experiences.
“Art Sitkowski came off the bench three times, beat Nebraska, Penn State and Iowa,” Bielema said “For that to happen, it doesn’t just happen. He’s ready for the moment as a backup quarterback. That really says a lot to me about the way we’re developing our players.”
The program worked for Tommy DeVito, who led Illinois to eight wins during his one season after arriving from Syracuse.
Now, it is likely Altmyer’s turn after the Starkville, Miss., native spent his first two seasons of college at Mississippi.
“What we do is completely different from what he had been a part of,” Bielema said. “Because of that, it took him awhile to adjust to what we do. Over the last month, according to our strength coaches and the guys that have been watching workouts, his leadership skills and his communication with the team has really jumped.”
Redshirt freshman Donovan Leary and Ball State transfer John Paddock are faring well, too, according to Bielema.
“The competition in that quarterback room is as good as we’ve ever had it,”Bielema said. “That’s what I’m excited about.”
Second opinionThough his new network is just hooking up with the Big Ten this year, NBC analyst Todd Blackledge has done his homework.
The former Penn State quarterback, NFL first-round pick and former longtime ESPN analyst is familiar with Altmyer.
“I knew he was recruited pretty well by Lane Kiffin at Ole Miss,” Blackledge said. “I know that he was in a quarterback competition with Jaxson Dart. I’ve seen him on the practice field. I think what Bret and his staff are hoping is, ‘We kind of hit it right with Tommy DeVito last year.’ And they’re hoping to have the same kind of luck this time around.”
Blackledge likes what he sees in Altmyer.
“I think he’s a talented kid,” Blackledge said. “He came very close to being the starting quarterback at Ole Miss before getting beaten out. For him, it’s like a new lease on life and a new opportunity to be a starter.”
Altmyer joins a talented team, one coming off a January bowl game.
“If they get solid quarterback play, they’ll be a hard out in the league,” Blackledge said.
Whether he is named the starter going into training camp shouldn’t be an issue for Altmyer.
“Competition is part of the deal,” Blackledge said.
He lived it. At Penn State, Blackledge was in the same recruiting class as Jeff Hostetler, who later won two Super Bowls with the New York Giants.
“We battled all through the spring and into the fall,” Blackledge said. “Joe Paterno didn’t make a decision about the starting quarterback until Thursday of the opening week of the season and he chose Jeff.”
Blackledge became the starter in the fourth game and eventually led the Nittany Lions to a national title in 1982. Hostetler transferred to West Virginia pre-portal and had a great career with the Mountaineers.
“If you’re worth anything,” Blackledge said, “you don’t mind competing to play.”
Been there, done thatIllini star receiver Isaiah Williams has made a quick connection with Altmyer.
“I want him to trust in me,” Williams said.
Williams and the Illini hope to improve their downfield passing this season, and the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Altmyer can help.
“He’s got one of the most pretty deep balls I’ve ever seen,” Williams said. “Let you run up underneath it. He’s got great touch on the ball. That’s his gift.”
Not that Williams is playing favorites. To top the 82 passes he caught in 2022, Williams needs to be on good terms with all of the Illini quarterbacks.
“I think it’s a great competition,” the converted quarterback said. “All three of them bring something special to the table.”
It is also a friendly competition among Altmyer, Paddock and Leary.
“It’s like a brotherhood in that quarterback room,” Williams said. “They really root for each other, which is not common.
“It’s going to be a good fight.”

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