Entering his third year in Champaign, does Wes Lunt still remain a bit of a mystery?
Year 1 was spent sitting out after transferring in from Oklahoma State, as NCAA rules require. Year 2 started strong, as Lunt beat out Reilly O’Toole for the starting quarterback job and led a trio of fourth-quarter comebacks during non-conference play, putting up some gaudy numbers albeit against mediocre competition.
But he sat out the Big Ten opener against Nebraska with an injury and played decently before getting crushed by a Purdue defender and knocked out for the next three games. He returned against Iowa and Penn State, though that was in mediocre, not 100-percent-recovered fashion, and he again yielded to O’Toole, who led a comeback win against the Nittany Lions. Lunt played but only threw eight passes in the bowl game loss to Louisiana Tech.
So what started off so promising turned sour thanks to that injury. Lunt averaged more than 309 passing yards in each of the season’s first four games, including an eye-popping 456-yard, three-touchdown effort against Western Kentucky. He was among the Big Ten’s passing leaders through the non-conference portion of the schedule.
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But injuries — thanks in part to a porous offensive line that’s admitted in the ramp up to this season that they need to protect him better — derailed that strong first season in orange and blue in a hurry. He was working wonders against Purdue before getting hammered by that Boilermaker defender. He threw for 332 yards and a pair of touchdowns in that game. But he was never the same after, throwing for just 194 yards in the three games he played in the remainder of the season.
It means that despite his upperclassman status and second year as the team’s starting quarterback, there’s still a sense of not knowing what to expect from the Rochester native.
But teammates know what to expect.
“He’s awesome, man,” running back Josh Ferguson said Sunday at the team’s media day in Champaign. “He’s gotten stronger, he’s gotten bigger, he’s got more agile, more mobile, all while maintaining that big arm. Even better in the film room. He’s gotten smarter, which has transferred onto the field. We’re excited for Wes, we’re excited for a great season for us. We’ve just got to protect him.
“We knew Wes Lunt was a great player when he first got here. It’s been a treat to watch him grow into an even better one. The goal of the offense, as an offensive line and a running back, is just to keep him up, keep him protected, let him throw and keep his eyes clear.”
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Surely no one is doubting the potential for Lunt to be a great quarterback, but his shining moments from a season ago also came against the weakest competition on the Illini’s schedule. His fourth-quarter comebacks were impressive, but should they have been necessary at all to earn wins against the likes of Youngstown State, Western Kentucky and Texas State? Lunt was far less effective against Washington, completing just 16 passes in that blowout loss in which his interception was returned for a touchdown. His only other solid pre-injury action came in that game against Purdue, the Big Ten’s perennial bottom feeder.
There’s no doubt that Lunt has an arm, and coaches won’t stop comparing his style to Tom Brady’s. That’s a style comparison more than anything else, so no need to assume Illinois coaches believe they’ve got a future Hall of Famer on their hands. But Lunt is obviously good.
“I think if you watch tape, there’s a lot of people going, ‘If that kid’s healthy, he’s going to be a really great player.’ It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out,” offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said. “We’ve got to make sure we protect him. And when I talked to the team, everybody’s got to protect him. It’s not just the offensive line. It’s him, he’s got to get in the right protections. It’s us as coaches. It’s the wideouts, they’ve got to get open. The running backs, they’ve got to do what they need to do, either block protection or get out in routes. So everybody’s got to be responsible for protecting the quarterback. That’s no different than any other (place I’ve been). For the last 25 years, my No. 1 thing has been protect the quarterback, and we’re all involved in that we’ve got to get that done.”
So why was the Illini offense more effective with O’Toole at the helm last season? It was Lunt’s backup who led the biggest wins of the season against Minnesota, Penn State and Northwestern. This year, there’s no one for Lunt to have to beat out for the job. And that has Lunt feeling a lot better about himself and about his role on the team.
“I think the biggest thing was that last year Reilly was here. So halfway into fall camp, I got named the starter. It’s hard to lead when you’re not named the guy,” Lunt said. “Just being named the guy helps a lot.”
Adding to the mystery of how Lunt will perform is the injury to wideout Mike Dudek, who was the Illini’s best offensive player a season ago. Dudek tore his ACL in spring practice, and though an optimistic early diagnosis suggested he’d be able to play this season, he’ll at the very best still miss a significant chunk of the schedule.
But according to the Illini, Lunt’s connection with his receivers is better than ever. And that could make all the difference in Illinois’ season in 2015.
“The timing, the timing that Wes has had with the receivers. So it’s not just what Wes has done, it’s the whole group, wide receivers and Wes," head coach Tim Beckman said.
“I think he’s more comfortable because really his first year was on the scout team when he was sitting out, so I think he’s more comfortable. It’s another year underneath his belt. It’s good to know that we’ve got him for two more. He’s going in there as a junior, and he feels comfortable. You can see that, you can feel it. Especially from where I stand because I’m right behind him. All the coaches are on the sidelines, but I’m right behind him. So I can feel the difference the way our offense has responded.”