Wes Lunt still has something to prove.
He’s been considered one of the top returning quarterbacks in the Big Ten for the 2015 season. Last year, he posted an impressive 14:3 touchdown to interception rate, one of the best differentials in the conference. In his injury-shortened sophomore season, Lunt was one of the nation’s top performers in the fourth quarter, completing 75 percent of his passes while throwing five touchdown passes without a single interception.
Though Lunt’s credentials aren’t undervalued and his importance hasn’t been undermined, he still hasn’t demonstrated that he can be the one thing Illinois needs: a winning quarterback.
It’s clear that the former Oklahoma State transfer has the talent and arm strength to compete as one of the conference’s top passers this year but translating his projected individual success into wins is a much more intimidating obstacle.
For the first time since 2011, the Illini enjoyed a moderate amount of success, posting six wins and reaching bowl eligibility. The accomplishment was more relieving than exciting considering the pit Illinois had fallen into over the past few seasons.
A good portion of that success can be attributed to a passing attack that ranked second in the conference with an average of 249.8 yards per game. With Lunt suffering from injuries that sidelined him for five complete games last year, Tim Beckman also had to rely on backup senior Reilly O’Toole to keep the offense moving.
Even though the Illinois offense fluttered at times and the passing game wasn’t dominant every Saturday, the combination of Lunt and O’Toole was enough to keep bowl hopes alive in Champaign.
Now that the Illini have shown strides of improvement over the past three seasons, the expectation has grown for the team and subsequently its starting quarterback. Assuming he is injury-free this fall, Lunt’s going to be depended on to carry the offense and translate big yardage numbers and high completion rates into victories.
That’s unfamiliar territory for the kid who was only able to start seven games a season ago.
Lunt will be shouldering most of the weight this season but should have a fair amount of assistance from his teammates to help the Illini offense flourish in a pivotal season.
Running back Josh Ferguson might be the next-most important player offensively behind Lunt. The multi-purpose back lead the team in rushing last season, posting a 735-yard, eight touchdown season on the ground while also serving as the third-best target through the air, catching 50 passes for 427 yards.
Geronimo Allison’s role increased when last year’s leading pass-catcher, Mike Dudek, suffered an ACL injury that is expected to keep him off the field until at least early October. But Allison will be a legitimate target for Lunt in the offense and should be an effective deep-threat for his quarterback.
The injury to Dudek is undoubtedly a setback the Illinois offense but with so many weapons surrounding him, Lunt won’t be able to use that excuse if the team falls short of its goals this season.
Lunt’s continued struggle with the injury bug left many wondering what the Illini could’ve accomplished if he was under center for every game last fall. The ongoing success of his counterparts such as J.T. Barrett, Connor Cook and Christian Hackenberg have somewhat overshadowed how much talent Lunt possesses.
But the Illini quarterback has an opportunity to change all of that.
If the conference’s second-best passing attack from a season ago is able to turn a corner and catapult into the eight- or nine-win range, Lunt will be receive much of the credit.
He can be the leader behind a transformation in Illinois football and be respected as one of the Big Ten’s biggest passing threats.