Wes Lunt named starting quarterback for Illini

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Wes Lunt named starting quarterback for Illini

Illinois' Wes Lunt (12) talks to Reilly O'Toole (4) on the sidelines during the annual Orange and Blue Spring Game at Memorial Stadium, on Saturday, April 13, 2014. The Blue team won 38-7.

Illinois' Wes Lunt (12) talks to Reilly O'Toole (4) on the sidelines during the annual Orange and Blue Spring Game at Memorial Stadium, on Saturday, April 13, 2014. The Blue team won 38-7.

Illinois' Wes Lunt (12) talks to Reilly O'Toole (4) on the sidelines during the annual Orange and Blue Spring Game at Memorial Stadium, on Saturday, April 13, 2014. The Blue team won 38-7.

Illinois' Wes Lunt (12) talks to Reilly O'Toole (4) on the sidelines during the annual Orange and Blue Spring Game at Memorial Stadium, on Saturday, April 13, 2014. The Blue team won 38-7.

Wes Lunt was officially named Illinois’ starting quarterback Wednesday afternoon.

The announcement came from head coach Tim Beckman after the starting job was in question throughout the spring and training camp.

“Wes Lunt has an outstanding arm,” Beckman said. “He has outstanding leadership capabilities.”

Lunt, a sophomore transfer from Oklahoma State, will make his first start at home on Aug. 30 in the Illini’s opener against Youngstown State.

The last time Lunt played at Memorial Stadium, he broke records.

Then, it was 2011 and the high school senior set the record for most passing yards in a title game (590) while he threw four touchdowns to lead Rochester High School to the Class 4A state championship. Now, Beckman is counting on Lunt to lead the Illini in a similar manner.

In 2012, Lunt became the first true freshman to start at quarterback for Oklahoma State in 62 years, throwing for 1,096 yards in his five starts with the Cowboys. But after a knee injury and an apparent head injury forced Lunt to sit for several games, the quarterback lost his starting job and transferred to Illinois in 2013.

Lunt is a pass-first quarterback and his traditional role behind the line of scrimmage fits offensive coordinator Bill Cubit’s pass-heavy play calling, which had the Illini offense ranked second in passing yards per game (287.7) in the Big Ten under former quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.

Scheelhaase led the Big Ten with 3,272 passing yards last season and he has left behind a void both on and off the field. When asked at Illinois’ preseason media day which of the three quarterback candidates showed the most leadership — Lunt, senior Reilly O’Toole, or sophomore Aaron Bailey — Beckman answered “Reilly” without hesitation, and with the senior’s experience with the Illini, the head coach’s quick answer made sense.

But Lunt’s “whirlwind” experience at Oklahoma State and his year off with Illinois last season — per NCAA transfer rules — have him feeling ready for the starting job.

“You just realize how fast the college game is and how good all these guys are that play on Saturdays,” Lunt said. “I definitely think it helped, being able to play as a freshman and getting the speed of the game. Last year was good just to help me mature physically and work on the mental side of the game.”

Lunt’s performance in training camp earned compliments from across the Illini roster, including O’Toole, who was the sophomore’s main competition for the position.

“Wes has the prototypical size,” O’Toole said. “He can make all the throws, really smart.” 

Where do the others fit in?

Aaron Bailey

It was unlikely Bailey was going to leave training camp as Illinois’ starting quarterback.

Battling for the spot against senior Reilly O’Toole and a talented sophomore transfer in Wes Lunt, Bailey seemed likely to remain in the back-up role he held last season.

But the four-star high school recruit has made it clear he has no interest in playing other offensive positions and will continue in the back-up position.

“I’m athletic, but I’m quarterback and that’s all I want to play,” Bailey said.

Beckman understands the opportunity an athletic quarterback like Bailey gives the Illini offense and is open to the idea of using multiple quarterbacks in different offensive roles throughout the season.

“You can definitely get some defensive coordinators scrambling, having to prepare for two different types of quarterbacks,” Beckman said.

Bailey played in nine games last season for the Illini, rushing for three touchdowns throughout the year and threw for another in the team’s 56-32 loss to Wisconsin — a threat not only to score but, as Bailey pointed out, to keep drives alive on third down.

“I can obviously throw it in the pocket but at the same time, when the pocket breaks down, I can create things,” Bailey said. “When the play seems like it’s dead, I can keep it going, keep it alive and get positive yards.”

As each quarterback repeated at Illinois’ preseason media day, the friendly fight for the starting job could have only made the offense better. But for the self-described underdog, Bailey still craves the spot under center.

“It’s like competing against your brother,” Bailey said. “You love them at the end of the day, but at the same time you want to win.”

Reilly O’Toole

Senior Reilly O’Toole lost one of his best friends and mentors in Scheelhaase. So while he spent the offseason trying to win the starting quarterback position for himself, he was also interested in helping the team grow and earn more wins.

“He was the hardest worker I knew,” O’Toole said. “Him, Miles Osei, Ryan Lankford, Steve Hull, those are the guys I surrounded myself with and really taught me hard work. And I think that has rubbed off on not only me, but the whole team.”

It’s this sense of commitment that has him as a standout in terms of filling the leadership void left by Scheelhaase.  And it hasn’t stopped him from doing anything he can to help the team overall, regardless of the quarterback battle outcome. 

During a recent practice when he was not in the pocket, O’Toole approached Cubit saying he wanted to play the wideout position. Cubit put him in and on his first route, O’Toole caught the pass thrown his way. His temporary change of position caught the team’s attention.

“You could see everyone just going ‘great job Reilly,’” Cubit said. “He’s a team player. He just goes out there. He does whatever he has to do. So I think that’s where his leadership is. He’s a good attribute at quarterback, but he’s gone almost one step more in what he’s doing for us.”

O’Toole’s off-the-field contributions have been recognized as well. He was named one of the summer captains and Beckman stated without hesitation that of the three quarterbacks, he was displaying the most leadership. Beckman further stressed, that regardless of the outcome of the quarterback battle, O’Toole’s leadership will remain the same.

A result of seniority and time spent with Scheelhaase, O’Toole has demonstrated this leadership throughout fall camp. He has helped the new guys adjust and developed relationships along the way, including one with roommate Lunt. 

And while he may not be the starting playcaller, O’Toole is still itching to leave his mark on the field.

“I just want to play and help the team in any way I can. And if that consists of catching some passes or even just being out there, doing whatever I can to help the team win games. It’s the last year, I just want to get on the field any way, as much as I can, because I think I could help the team in different ways than just playing quarterback, so that’s my mindset.”

Sean and Charlotte can be reached at [email protected] and at [email protected]