Illinois looks to handle injuries with care

By Sean Neumann

The Illini coaching staff chose not to play Wes Lunt against Nebraska on Saturday.

The team’s starting quarterback was available to play despite dealing with an aggravated knee injury from a hit in the game against Texas State. Lunt practiced for most of the week, but when the time came to make a decision, Illini coach Tim Beckman said it wasn’t a tough one to make.

“He was not 100 percent,” Beckman said. “As a father and as a coach, it’s a decision that we decided to make that was best for Wes and best for this football team.”

Lunt’s had his fair share of injuries over the past few years. The quarterback suffered a pair of leg injuries that forced him out most of his freshman year at Oklahoma State before he transferred to Illinois.

The hit Lunt took against Texas State had offensive coordinator Bill Cubit worried on the sideline.

“I’ll be honest with you, you’re sitting there like, ‘How’d the kid survive it?’?” Cubit said. “We were lucky. We really are.”

But the Illini haven’t been as lucky with other players this season. The team has had to sit out a slew of players due to injuries this season — Illinois currently has three players listed out for the season and two more likely out for multiple games  — and Beckman said the players never take the news lightly.

Beckman said defensive lineman Teko Powell becomes emotional when told he’s not cleared to play — which has happened three times this season, counting Illinois’ upcoming matchup with Purdue, which Powell has already been ruled out for. 

Powell has been out since suffering a foot injury against Washington and is unlikely to return soon for the Illini.

“He’s almost in tears every time you tell him,” Beckman said. “He wants to play for this team and make this team the best it can be.”

College football coaches have been on guard since Saturday’s incident with Michigan coach Brady Hoke, who has been under fire from the media following his decision to continue playing quarterback Shane Morris after he received a concussion from a hit to the head.

Illinois has a system set up on the sidelines between coaches and trainers to protect players from risking further injury during a game.

“There’s a pretty extensive protocol,” Cubit said. “There’s team doctors and there’s trainers. They’ll come up to you and say, ‘Such and such is out.’ And there’s just no discussion. ‘OK, he’s out. Who’s the next guy?’?”

The “next guy” on Saturday was senior Reilly O’Toole, who started in Lunt’s place and took a beating against Nebraska, getting sacked four times.

Illini offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic said there’s more pressure on the linemen to protect the quarterbacks now that they’re playing with the fear of injury in addition to the checks, play calling and play execution they have to worry about during each play.

“They’re our friends,” Cvijanovic pointed out. “When I see Reilly or Wes get hit, especially if it’s my fault, it hurts inside because they’re your friend. They would do whatever it takes to not let you get hit if they were in your shoes, so it’s personal.”

It was never more personal for Cubit than when his son Ryan Cubit — current Illini director of football student-athlete development — played with a stress fracture in his leg and a fractured elbow without telling anybody.

At Western Michigan in 2005, Cubit said he was tempted to put Ryan into a game against top-25 Virginia because his team had a chance to win, but realized one victory wasn’t worth the risk to his quarterback — especially when it was his own son.

“The temptation was to throw him in there and we could go win this thing,” Cubit remembered. “You just don’t do it. That’s the way it is.”

Cubit said he’s had to go as far as taking a player’s helmet away so that way they weren’t able to legally go into the game.

When it came to Lunt’s condition against Nebraska, Illinois’ decision to keep him out of the game echoed the same thought process Cubit had nine years ago.

“We’re all in this for the student-athlete,” Beckman said. “We would never want to harm or put a player in that situation.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @neumannthehuman.