Big Ten

Big Ten preview: In his final season, Wes Lunt looks to lead Illini through more change

Big Ten preview: In his final season, Wes Lunt looks to lead Illini through more change

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.”

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

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USA TODAY

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

Tough news out of Evanston this morning: Northwestern announced that running back Jeremy Larkin will retire immediately after being diagnosed with cervical stenosis.

Cervical stenois is the narrowing of the spinal canal in one's neck, according to Mayo Clinic. Larkin's condition is thankfully not life-threatening, though it does prevent him from continuing to participate in the game of football. 

"Football has been a lifelong passion and it has been a process to reconcile the fact I won't be on that field again, given I've played this game since I was five years old," Larkin said.

"I'm extremely appreciative of the Northwestern sports medicine and athletic training staffs for uncovering this condition, and for my coaches and the medical staff for always putting my health first.

"I came to this University to engage at the absolute highest level on the field and in the classroom, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to continue one of those while supporting my teammates from the sideline." 

Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald called the news "heartbreaking."

"This is heartbreaking because I see every day how much Jeremy loves the game, loves his teammates, and loves to compete," Fitzgerald said in a statement. "But this is the absolute best possible outcome for him.

"The discovery of this condition allowed Jeremy and his family to make an informed decision for his long-term health and well-being. For those of us who have known Jeremy Larkin since his high school days, his future is exceptionally bright. I can't wait to see the impact he makes in our world."

Larkin is a sophomore from Cincinnati. He finishes his Northwestern career with 156 carries for 849 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns.

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

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USA TODAY

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

Former University of Illinois tennis star Kevin Anderson completed a marathon upset against an all-time great on the highest stage of professional tennis.

Anderson came back from two sets down to beat Roger Federer in Wimbledon’s quarterfinals 2-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 13-11 on Wednesday morning. He will play in the semifinals of the tournament for the first time in his career.

As a native of South Africa, Anderson played three seasons with the Fighting Illini and won the NCAA doubles championship during the 2005-06 season as a sophomore. The 32-year-old was a three-time All-American in singles at Illinois.

Now, as the eighth ranked singles player on the ATP World Tour, Anderson is a force to be reckoned with at the professional level. He made it all the way to the US Open final in 2017.

The former Illini star will look to keep his recent success going when he represents Illinois in the semifinals of Wimbledon this Friday.