Coaches might not like to admit it publicly, and across the country they prefer to stick to a "next man up" message, but there is always at least one player a program can’t afford to lose.
This week, the Big Ten reporters are trying to identify the guys across the league who would be hardest to replace between now and the start of the season if they suffered an injury, were lost to suspension, unexpectedly retired to play minor league baseball, etc... Whether it’s based on individual talent or lack of depth at a position, the goal is to find the true most valuable player on every roster in the conference as the march toward the season continues.
Up first: Illinois
QB Wes Lunt: Plenty has changed for the Illini, but the face at quarterback remains the same. That should prove useful for new coach Lovie Smith and a retooled offense, which is shifting away from the spread, no-huddle attack to a more pro-style approach and trusting in the veteran passer to guide the Illini through the transition.
Perhaps the tweaks to the playbook will put a bit less strain on Lunt's strong arm this season after he averaged more than 40 attempts per game a year ago, but it surely won’t diminish his impact as Illinois tries to bounce back and get to the postseason in his final campaign with the program. Lunt obviously can’t do everything himself, with all the drops from the Illinois receiving corps serving as one clear reminder of that a year ago, but his leadership, experience and passing ability would all be extremely difficult to replace.
Illinois has some potentially productive young quarterbacks in the pipeline, and Chayce Crouch got his feet wet as a redshirt freshman last season by appearing in 10 games and showing some dual-threat ability with nearly 100 yards rushing and a couple touchdown passes. But if Illinois is going to take a step forward under Smith right away, Lunt figures to the guy leading the way.