- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Hope everyone enjoyed the long Memorial Day weekend. We've still got a ways to go until the fall arrives and brings football back to our lives.
But we're still cranking out the Big Ten content all summer, and today we start a new series looking at the most indispensable players on each team. Indispensable doesn’t necessarily mean best. The goal is to identify players who would be hardest to replace between now and the start of the season if they suffered an injury, were lost to suspension, got breathed on by one of Khaleesi's dragons, etc.
Whether it’s from a particular player’s individual value or lack of depth at a position, we’re picking two guys from each team who fit the bill -- usually offense and defense, but not always.
We're going alphabetically, so Illinois bats leadoff:
QB Wes Lunt: "Well, duh," you might say. "Pick the starting quarterback." True, but Lunt wasn't exactly indispensable a year ago when he began the season as the Illini's starter. After injuries forced Lunt out of the lineup and robbed some of his effectiveness, Reilly O'Toole took over the reins and helped lead the team to its first bowl game under Tim Beckman. But now O'Toole has graduated (and, we can only hope, will soon open some eponymous Irish sports bars), while Aaron Bailey transferred this offseason to Northern Iowa. So it's Lunt's show for sure now, with a trio of freshman led by Chayce Crouch behind him. Perhaps one of the youngsters could fill in nobly if something were to happen to Lunt. But Illinois would really rather not find out.
DE Jihad Ward: After Illinois' disastrous defensive performance in 2014, it may sound strange to say anyone on that side of the ball is indispensable. But Ward can be a real difference-maker, the kind of athletic freak who simply doesn't come around that often. After a debut season in which he recorded 8.5 tackles for loss and three sacks, the former junior college transfer looked unblockable at times this spring. If Ward can fulfill his immense potential, he could give the Illini a disruptive pass-rushing presence not seen in Champaign since Whitney Mercilus prowled in opposing backfields. And there's no one else on the roster with that kind of ceiling.