For better or worse, Wes Lunt’s journey ends here.
The Illinois quarterback has been through an awful lot in his five years as a college football player. He started as a true freshman at Oklahoma State in 2012 before transferring to Illinois and sitting out the 2013 season. In 2014, he edged Reilly O’Toole for the starting job only to get injured to the extent where he was swapped out for O’Toole late in the season. Last year, the players around Lunt suffered so many injuries, it seemed the Illini couldn’t do a thing on offense.
And just in the past year, Lunt has experienced the firing of one coach, the hiring and firing of another and the hiring of a third. And there have been just as many offensive coordinators.
But Lovie Smith’s arrival in Champaign has seemed to bring stability. Is it true that things have settled down?
“I think so, and that’s a great feeling, a feeling we haven’t had in a while as players,” Lunt said during Big Ten Media Days. “For Illinois football moving forward, I think it’ll be that way for a while, and we’re excited.”
Despite some solid numbers for Lunt — he was fifth in the Big Ten with 2,761 passing yards last season — the Illinois offense has not fared well in his two years as starter. Last season, the Illini were 12th in the league in scoring offense and 10th in total offense. A lot of the offense’s potential was wiped away due to injuries to wide receiver Mike Dudek and running back Josh Ferguson.
Smith brought in Garrick McGee to serve as his offensive coordinator. McGee most recently worked at Louisville, and it’s his task to work with Lunt to get the Illini offense turned around.
“Anytime you get a new offensive coordinator, it’s a way to learn new things, and I think that’s been the biggest thing out of all these changes is I’ve got to learn from a lot of really smart and intelligent people from a football aspect and just life,” Lunt said. “And I think coach McGee’s another example of that. He’s a great coach, great person, and I love picking his brain about football.”
But much like last season, the Illini’s fortunes will depend less on Lunt stepping up more than he already has and more on the players surrounding him.
Unfortunately, that’ll be hard with Dudek again sidelined. The team’s top wideout — who turned in one of the program’s best-ever receiving seasons in 2014 — improbably suffered another torn ACL this spring, and he’ll miss his second straight season. It’s a terrible blow for a promising young player and a terrible blow for an offense that needed him desperately.
It means the young receivers thrust into action last season will once more be tested. This time, they have the benefit of experience, but their production will still need to improve if the offense’s results are going to be different than they were last season.
“Malik Turner, Justin Hardee, Des Cain, Sam Mays are the guys that pop out at me,” Lunt said. “Maybe a couple freshmen might help us out. We’re not extremely deep at that position, but from last year we’ve got a lot more experience and excited moving forward.
“I think the senior leaders in that room … I think those guys will hold all those young guys accountable. They all got a little taste of experience last year, but relatively speaking, we haven’t had a lot of experience and I think the older guys will help them out in that aspect.”
The Illini have high hopes for running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn, who could prove to be Lunt’s most effective partner on the offensive side of the ball after he rushed for a team-high 723 yards and six touchdowns as a true freshman last season.
But, as the quarterback, Lunt will be the most important piece of the puzzle. It’s his last year, so he knows the importance this season holds.
“My mental toughness has gotten stronger and stronger every year just going through what you have to go through as a quarterback,” Lunt said. “You’re never going to play a perfect game, and that’s why we all play the game is to play that perfect game, just to keep coming back day in and day out and performing.
“I think I just have to be myself, learn the offense coach McGee wants. Just be myself, I think that’s the most important thing. Got to be a leader for these guys. We’ve got some young guys in some new spots, going to have to help them out, just be a vocal leader.”