<
>

Can Illinois' Wes Lunt cash in his tantalizing gifts?

4h

Is this the Year of the Quarterback in the Big Ten? With NFL draft hopefuls, veteran returning starters and other intriguing prospects taking snaps around the league in 2015, it just might be. All week long, we're taking a closer look at some of this fall's most interesting Big Ten signal-callers ...

There are certainly Big Ten quarterbacks who have accomplished a lot more. But when it comes to simply looking the part, Illinois' Wes Lunt is in elite company.

At 6-foot-5 and now weighing close to 230 pounds, Lunt has every physical trait that central casting would seek when filling the role of stud quarterback.

"He's got a great arm," Illini offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said. "He's got great touch and can make some of the more difficult throws -- the back-shoulder throw, the long ball, the feel throws. You don't have to sit there and say, 'We can't do this or make the defense only play two-thirds of the field.'"

Lunt's ascent to stardom began early but has seen its share of interruptions. He started as a true freshman at Oklahoma State, where his feats included throwing for 436 yards and four touchdowns against Arizona and for 324 yards against TCU. Leg and head injuries limited him to only five games, however, and after the season he transferred to Illinois, whose campus sits about 80 miles from where he grew up.

Big things were expected when Lunt opened 2014 as the starter for the Illini, after sitting out a year under NCAA transfer rules. He put up impressive numbers early, including a 456-yard day against Western Kentucky and 332 yards against Purdue. But he also suffered a broken leg in that Purdue game, and though he was able to get back on the field later on last season, Reilly O'Toole had replaced him as the starter.

"I'm sure I'm due for some luck on the injury front," Lunt joked.

Even though Lunt finished with a 14-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio in his abbreviated, initial campaign in Illinois, he didn't feel like he was reaching his full potential. He had trouble mastering Cubit's offense, which calls for the quarterback to make a lot of decisions on the fly based on what the defense is showing.

"That was definitely new for me," Lunt said. "I'd never had that much freedom before. It takes a lot of time, a lot of film work. You have to learn defenses almost like you're playing defense and know why they're doing what they're doing."

Because O'Toole and Aaron Bailey were veterans who deserved a shot to compete for the job, Lunt split reps in spring and preseason practices last year, time that could have been valuable for his development. Now that O'Toole has graduated and Bailey has transferred, Lunt is unquestionably the starter and has shown a much better feel for the offense this offseason.

"He had a really good spring," Cubit said. "We teach how to attack defenses, and you're talking about split-second decisions. Sometimes, he was probably not as sure [last year] and he had a little bit of panic. Now, he's seeing things before they happen."

Cubit says even the best and smartest quarterbacks he has coached often take two or three years to get everything down. One adjustment he made for Lunt this spring was to run the offense under center more often, allowing the quarterback to control the snap count verbally and keep the defense from getting a jump on the play. Lunt felt comfortable under center and expects to be there more this fall.

Cubit helped Nathan Scheelhaase lead the Big Ten in passing yards in 2013, and the ceiling for a guy with Lunt's considerable natural talents is even higher. Health is not an issue right now, and the growing pains from the transfer have vanished.

"He's got that extra year of maturity," head coach Tim Beckman said. "He understands exactly what we're trying to accomplish."

Now, it's time to see if Lunt can translate his top-shelf talents into on-field accomplishments.