With Wes Lunt being officially named the starter last Wednesday, the biggest not-really-a-mystery in recent Illini football history has been solved. The real question is how many snaps will Aaron Bailey be taking per game. No one outside of the coaching staff and the quarterbacks actually know. We're entering our first season without Nathan Scheelhaase behind center since 2009, so it's strange days all around.
Nathan Scheelhaase's senior year was finally delivery on the potential his freshman season displayed. Having to constantly learn new schemes and offenses under a new coordinator every year may have ultimately stunted Nate's career, but he still managed to finish as the career leader in total offense yardage in Illini history. Scheelhaase threw for 3,272 yards, 21 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. That's the 4th most yards in one season for an Illinois QB and at a 66.7% completion rate (a school record). It's usually not an easy thing to replace that kind of production.
But you don't always replace that kind of production with a weapon that is even better-suited for the task. Tim Beckman and Bill Cubit likely have that weapon in Lunt. As I've mentioned before, Cubit tried recruiting Lunt as a four star prospect to Western Michigan. When you're competing with schools like Oklahoma State for that type of athlete as a MAC school, you rarely get to win. But because fate is a capricious mistress, the two are finally united.
Lunt won the starting job at Oklahoma State as a true freshman. That is an incredibly difficult thing to accomplish. His 2012 rookie season wound up being a bit of a mixed bag. Due to injuries, Wes only started six games. He completed 81 of 131 attempts for 1,109 yards. That's a 61.8% completion rate and 8.5 yards per attempt! That's pretty danged good for a freshman. But he also only had six touchdowns to seven interceptions. And this was on an offense with Josh Stewart having a 1,210 yard season with 7 TDs.
After losing the starting job, Lunt headed back home to Illinois and spent the 2013 rocking a transfer redshirt and learning the Cubit playbook. I think this is going to pay off incredibly handsomely this fall. Look at what Cubit did with Alex Carder at WMU. Carder was a 6'2, 188 lbs, two-star recruit with only one offer. Despite living less than an hour from Lawrence, he didn't even land an offer from Kansas, a school that wound up winning a mere 14 games since what would have been his freshman year. Over his sophomore and junior seasons, Carder threw for 7,207 yards and 61 TD (with 24 INT). Lunt is three inches taller, forty lbs heavier, one year older, and has a higher pedigree. In this system and with the right receivers breaking out, Lunt's floor should be something around Kurt Kittner. You know, that guy Juice Williams and Scheelhaase deposed as the career total offense yardage leader.
That's some really heady stuff, but it's entirely in the realm of the realistic. The receiving cupboard may look a bit bare right now, but it looked even worse last season before Steve Hull exploded out of nowhere. Geronimo Allison has pretty good odds of pulling off a breakout season as well. Add in the fact that teams need to keep Josh Ferguson covered out of the backfield and the squadron of small forwards we have playing tight end and there should be plenty of open targets for Lunt to sling heat at.
Reilly O'Toole will forever belong in the realm of the Tim Brasics and Eddie McGees. He happened to come along at the exact wrong time, sitting behind Scheelhaase for three years and now Lunt. O'Toole is a fine enough backup, but not a starter on a team that plans on breaking a bowl drought. I'm honestly hoping we have a commanding enough lead against Penn State on Senior Day that he can get some reps on the field in his last game at Memorial Stadium. O'Toole should ultimately be third on the depth chart though.
Aaron Bailey is the trio's wildcard. Before the Lunt transfer, Bailey was destined to be the next Great Illini Hope. That ace recruit who stayed home and finally awakens the sleeping Illini giant. Now his future is substantially less certain. For whatever reason, the Bailer was not redshirted last year, meaning his eligibility will run out at the exact same time that Lunt's does. The 2014 recruiting class has Chayce Crouch. 2015 has Jimmy Fitzgerald. Will Cubit continue to use Bailey as a short yardage bulldozer and/or decoy? Will Aaron switch to a new position after his season, like Miles Osei and McGee before him? We have no idea. All I know is that this is a really fun problem to have.
Lunt and Bailey have A grade potential. That's not really debatable. But both are relatively untested, especially at running this offense. I'm going with a B for now, but am optimistic that the grade will be a B+ or A- come December.