Same old, same old: Wes Lunt’s return to football


Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt during practice at Memorial Field.

By Sean Neumann

Nothing ever goes according to plan, but everything eventually falls into place. At least that’s the way it’s always seemed for Wes Lunt. 

The sophomore quarterback will get his first start for Illinois in Saturday’s home opener against Youngstown State, but neither the school nor the position were part of his original dreams.

“I thought I was going to play basketball in college,” Lunt said. “I never really even thought about football.”

Now, it’s all he thinks about: “I’m just preparing whenever I can.”

It wasn’t until eighth grade that Lunt began playing football and it took another year for him to switch from wide receiver to quarterback at his brother’s urging. 

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“I’ve never seen anyone throw the football like him before,” Lunt’s high school coach Derek Leonard said. “He’s accurate. He can put it wherever he wants it. He’s as good as it gets.”

Despite growing up less than an hour and a half away from Champaign in Rochester, Illinois, the Illini weren’t Lunt’s first choice either. After capturing two state championships under Leonard at Rochester High School, breaking IHSA passing records and being named the seventh best quarterback in the nation for high school recruits, Lunt choose to play at Oklahoma State.

Lunt was the first true freshman to start the Cowboys’ season opener in over 60 years. He was impressive — throwing 588 yards on just 75 attempts — before injuring his knee in his third game. Lunt briefly returned later in the season, throwing for 508 yards in less than two games before he found himself on the sidelines again with a head injury.

The quarterback chose to transfer home to Illinois before his sophomore season. 

“At Oklahoma State, he wasn’t asked to do too much,” said offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, who has had to adjust and spend time learning how to read defensive coverages better than he had in the Big 12. “He’s handled himself ever since he got here. He’s a really even-keel guy. He just kind of goes about his business.”

Lunt’s calm personality coincides with his relaxed approach as an offensive play caller.

“You have to have an even head,” Lunt said. “After a touchdown or a turnover, you’ve got to always be the same because something bad or good could happen that next play.”

The quarterback said not much has changed since being named the starter last week over senior Reilly O’Toole and sophomore Aaron Bailey. There’s been no abundance of recognition or change in his day-to-day life, and the new, humbled face of Illinois football is content with that.

“I’m pretty low key, so I don’t think anybody’s going to call me out or anything,” Lunt said about being approached by fans around town. “It’s just the same old, same old.”

And if there’s anything Illinois wants to stay “same old, same old,” it’s the quarterback position. Losing one of the program’s best quarterbacks in four-year starter Nathan Scheelhaase was a potentially huge blow to the offense before Lunt’s name was thrown back into the mix in 2012. Off the field, Scheelhaase was respectable; on the field, even more so.

Scheelhaase left Illinois as the program’s all-time leader in total offense (10,634 yards), ranked second all-time in career completions (775) and third in touchdown passes (55) while rushing for more than 2,000 yards.

While Lunt — who has already rewritten record books in only five years playing quarterback — has big shoes to fill, he plans to fill them differently.

“He’s a pocket passer for sure,” Leonard said. “He’s not a bad athlete. He feels the pocket and he can really get out of trouble.” 

Cubit agreed with the assessment, calling Lunt a “true drop-back guy.”

While Lunt is looking to escape defensive pressure on the field, he’ll likely be dealing with off-the-field pressure as he tries to help turn around an Illinois team that has gone 6-18 (1-17 Big Ten) in the past two years.

Lunt said the first step of that goal is complete, with the team having come together well throughout fall training camp — especially himself and the receiving core, who are both new to Illinois and Cubit’s offense.

“We just accept everybody like a family,” said senior wide receiver Martize Barr, who was new to the team last season. “Anybody that comes knows you’re a brother to me and a brother to everybody here.”

But on Saturday, his family will not only be supporting him from the sidelines but also from the stands, where the sophomore is expecting a large turnout of friends and relatives from nearby Rochester as he tries to lead the Illini to their first winning season in three years.

“We’re getting better everyday,” Lunt said. “I’m just nervous and excited.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected].