With even-keeled Lovie Smith, Wes Lunt finally has the stability he's always wanted
Here we go again.
That had to be what Wes Lunt was thinking. His final offseason was supposed to be his first normal one since his college career started. Finally, the Illinois quarterback wouldn’t have to deal with transferring, nagging injuries or major coaching changes. After all the winding turns in the first four years of his career, it appeared all that was left was a straightaway to the finish line.
But there was one sharp turn left. Well, more like two.
Newly-hired Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman dropped the bombshell that Bill Cubit, who shed his interim tag three months earlier, was fired. Players didn’t understand the move or what it meant for their futures. Lunt was one of 14-15 expected senior starters in 2016. The idea of playing for their third head coach — especially after one they liked was let go — didn’t sit well.
Then Whitman dropped his second bombshell in 48 hours. Lovie Smith was coming to Champaign, and in an instant, uncertainty turned into belief.
“It was a huge 180,” Lunt said. “Complete shock to hear the news.”
It’s not easy to shock Lunt anymore. By this point, he’s seen it all. He’s on his fourth head coach and fifth offensive coordinator.
|YEAR||LUNT’S OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR||LUNT’S HEAD COACH|
|2012||Todd Monken/Mike Yurcich||Mike Gundy|
|2013||Yurcich/Bill Cubit||Gundy/Tim Beckman|
|2015||B. Cubit/Ryan Cubit||Beckman/B. Cubit|
|2016||R. Cubit/Garrick McGee||B. Cubit/Lovie Smith|
He’s been the quarterback of the future and the quarterback without a future. To call Lunt’s career a roller coaster would be cliché, but true.
In his fifth year, he’ll finally get a chance to enjoy the ride.
“I’m still excited,” Lunt said about playing for Smith. “All the buzz and energy that the whole coaching staff brings every day excites us. Stability is the biggest thing. Knowing these freshman…there’s a good chance that Coach Smith will be here their whole four or five years. That excites them and calms everybody down.”
There was nothing stable about the way Lunt’s career began at Oklahoma State. Everyone remembers the ugly transfer-restriction story that followed after his first and only season in Stillwater. Often forgotten was the fact that Lunt became the first freshman quarterback to start the season for the Cowboys since 1950. He was a full 10 years younger than the team’s previous starter, Brandon Weeden. To handle the rigors of being a Big 12 starting quarterback as an 18-year-old, Lunt added 25 pounds to his 175-pound frame in roughly 5-6 months.
In hindsight, it might’ve stunted his development.
“I think that led to some injuries,” he said. “You see it all the time with people trying to gain weight too fast. I think that’s what happened.”
A variety of factors led to Lunt’s decision to transfer the following spring. After his injury-filled freshman year, he was no longer the clear No. 1 on the depth chart. His offensive coordinator, Todd Monken, took the head coaching job at Southern Miss.
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On top of that, Lunt wanted to come home. Illinois was the school 80 miles from his hometown of Rochester, Ill. He was an Illini athletics fan during the glory years in the mid-to-late 2000s. When Lunt was 14, he even made the trip to Pasadena, Calif. to watch Illinois in the Rose Bowl.
So why didn’t he go there out of high school?
Ironically enough, it was because of stability, or lack thereof. He knew that Ron Zook was likely out at Illinois after the 2011 season and he didn’t know what was next for the program.
With the entire Big 12, SEC and Pac-12 restricted as possible transfer destinations, continuing his career in Champaign made even more sense. The timing was finally right to go to his dream school.
“I really built a great relationship with Coach (Tim) Beckman and Cubit,” Lunt told ESPN back in 2013. “I’m going to show up, work hard and try to be successful. This is an ideal situation.”
Little did he know that he’d break his leg halfway through his first eligible season in Champaign.
Little did he know that by the end of the 2014, he’d find himself in a similar quarterback battle to the one he had at Oklahoma State.
Little did he know that Beckman, who was one of the reasons he came to Illinois, would be fired a week before the start of the 2015 season because of a player abuse scandal.
It definitely didn’t go the way Lunt drew it up. He even lost his go-to target, Mikey Dudek, to a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Twice.
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But despite the frustrating, out-of-his-control circumstances, Lunt found the positives.
His biggest obstacle used to be staying healthy. For the first time in his college career, he did that in 2015. Lunt also threw more than anyone in the B1G, yet he had the conference’s best passes-per-interception ratio at 80-to-1 (that was the best among Power Five quarterbacks with a minimum of 20 attempts per game). He got the chance to be the primary focus of the offense, especially after senior tailback Josh Ferguson suffered a mid-season injury.
Through everything that happened at Illinois in the 2015-16 school year, Lunt was the steadying force.
“I have embraced it,” Lunt said of his role. “This whole senior class has been super positive. There have been so many things that have happened that you can be negative and down about, but the senior class has done a really good job of holding everybody together. The support we’ve gotten with the community has been great.
“Now with Coach Smith here, it brings a lot more stability and a bright future for Illinois.”
By now, Lunt knows what to look for in a head coach. Smith is different than the previous three he worked with. Besides having an NFL pedigree, Smith’s calm demeanor is unlike anything Lunt has seen. Perhaps it’s fitting that after an adventurous four years, Lunt will work with a mild-mannered coach like Smith.
But Smith’s impact will be felt more on the defensive side of the ball. Garrick McGee, Lunt’s fifth offensive coordinator, is who he’s been working closely with. It’s been a bit of a crash course since McGee was brought on board in March.
“Coach McGee came in here at a really hard time with not having much time to teach us this offense,” Lunt said. “The biggest takeaway that I have with him is that he’s a great teacher. He knows how to relate to each quarterback in a different way and teach them. He’s a very positive person. He likes to have fun with his job.
“I know all the quarterbacks love having him in our room every day.”
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McGee didn’t make Lunt change who he is. The former Arkansas and Louisville offensive coordinator was successful working with dual-threat quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson and Reggie Bonnafon and pocket passers like Tyler Wilson and Ryan Mallett. Lunt might not throw the ball 481 times like he did last year, but he’ll get plenty of chances to shine in his final season.
The feeling around 2016 is that it’s a new era for Illini football. It certainly is, but Lunt is part of a senior class full of experience and expectations. The majority of that group has never competed for a division title or started in a bowl game.
First-year coach or not, there are no plans of a rebuild.
“There’s a lot of excitement,” Lunt said. “We all realize that we have a lot of experience. We’re the ones to hold ourselves back. We just have to be confident and play with great passion for the team, the coaches and the fans and the rest will take care of itself.”
The last time Illinois had this kind of hype was the 2007 Rose Bowl season. The program hasn’t had a winning regular season since then. Smith’s success beyond 2016 will determine whether or not Illinois can become stable.
Fortunately for him, he has the right guy under center to lay a stable foundation.