CHAMPAIGN — Coming off a 6-7 season with a tough schedule and surrounded by allegations of abuse, why are the Illini feeling so comfortable?
An increased comfort level is what has Illinois excited about the 2015 season. Whether it's the more entrenched quarterback or a defense packed with veterans, experience has bred comfort, which in turn is breeding confidence in Champaign.
“I think he’s more comfortable,” head coach Tim Beckman said of quarterback Wes Lunt during Sunday’s media day. “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 (during practice) 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.”
“These guys have played together. They’re comfortable with the calls that coach (Tim) Banks and coach (Mike) Phair are giving them,” Beckman said about his defense. “So we’ve been able to do a lot. The installation has been more than we’ve ever been able to do because we have maturity. I’m looking forward to this defense playing at the caliber that we believe is a winning caliber.”
Lunt, though he’s played just eight games in an Illinois uniform, is entering his third season with the program. He sat out the 2013 season per NCAA transfer rules after arriving from Oklahoma State. He won a preseason position battle with Reilly O'Toole but missed five games last season with an injury. After being through all that and going through another spring practice and entering his second fall camp and doing it this time as the clear-cut starting QB, Lunt is admittedly feeling a lot better about things.
“He’s just so much more comfortable,” offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said. “Just like his whole demeanor. I can remember last year he told me, ‘Coach, it’s tough being a leader when you really haven’t proven yourself.’ I think everybody understands that he is the guy. He got elected as a summer captain. He’s just got a different air about him, very confident, understands exactly (what to do). The offense is not easy. It takes a lot. … And he feels real comfortable doing that now.”
“I would say all around, just my knowledge of the offense, just playing a year in the Big Ten. Experience is a big thing,” Lunt said.
But while Lunt plays the game’s most visible position and will get the most attention from fans and observers as the season progresses, that experience can be found all over. Cubit pointed to receiver Geronimo Allison, again using the word “comfortable” to describe how much better he is in his second season after transferring in from the junior-college ranks. Running back Josh Ferguson is entering his third season as a starter. The offensive line is more experienced.
And on defense, that experience level could be the key to finally being able to slow down opponents. The Illini’s defensive numbers have been downright ugly in recent seasons. But with the excuse of youth no longer applicable — as well as a handful of guys who have started for multiple seasons — this could be the year that things get better. Every starter listed on the team’s post-spring depth chart was an upperclassman.
“I think they have a tremendous amount of confidence just because they know what the expectations are. They won’t be in awe in any venue that we play in. These kids have all played,” co-defensive coordinator Banks said. “Now, they also understand you’ve got to go out and do it. Having all these guys back is great, but regardless of it, you’ve got to out and execute and you’ve got to show that you can get it done when the lights come on. We’re excited. We’re eager about the challenge. We know it’s right around the corner, and that’s what gets us going every day when we get out of bed. They’re excited.”
“We have a lot of seniors on our defense, so it’s keeping the energy going every day in practice and teaching the younger guys and building off of each other, knowing what success we had last year and where we failed last year,” senior cornerback V’Angelo Bentley said. “It’s going to make us a better defense and ultimately a better team.”
There are plenty of question marks surrounding this team. Even before offseason allegations from a former player that he is an abusive bully, Beckman hasn’t earned a lot of confidence from Illini fans, despite the fact that he’s increased the team’s win total in each of the past two seasons. A tough schedule featuring a road trip to North Carolina and Big Ten bouts with Ohio State, Wisconsin and Nebraska in Champaign and Penn State and Minnesota on the road have few expecting that winning trend to continue.
But as far as the Illini are concerned, there are several reasons to be excited about this season. Chief among them is the fact that everyone is feeling a whole lot more comfortable.