You can say, with sound reasoning, that college sports are better than pro sports. They produce better gameday environments, better traditions, better rivalries, and once you pick one school as your favorite, you've inherently chosen to root for the same colors in multiple sports -- no other organization/league will play both football and basketball at the same time. But pro sports have one tremendous advantage -- their offseason's aren't completely barren. Free agents and draft picks fuel hope and excitement months ahead of Opening Day. Once college sports are done playing, there's nothing that can help you bridge the gap from mid-April to late-August, especially now the NCAA Football video game is gone.
That makes the Spring Game even more important. It is simultaneously an epilogue to the recent season and a prologue for the next. We're allowed a hazy look into the future. Here is our team, more or less, that will playing this fall. So I'm going to do my best to get you informed for the upcoming Orange and Blue Spring Game. It happens on April 18th, seven Saturdays from now, at 5 pm, if you're interested in going.
I'll be doing one position group each week, covering all the positional battles and particularly what you need to watch when that Spring Game arrives and we bid farewell to the college sports world.
Today, we start with the quarterbacks.
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Strolling through the internet the other day, I noticed this Sporting News list/slideshow floating around like a used plastic Wal-Mart bag in the wind. It is titled "The Top 25 quarterbacks for 2015". Wes Lunt is not on it.
Then I began to argue with myself if that bothers me. Does it? Absolutely not -- this is just an internet list that is populated and ordered solely based off someone's opinion. Who cares if a preseason thing said anything about my starting quarterback? It'll just be better when he becomes a Top 25 quarterback in the fall. Why should it matter?
Then, the longer I thought about it, I realized that it quite possibly did bother me.
Lunt shouldn't be on that list based on 2014 alone. The majority of his season was lost to injury -- a sprained knee kept him out of the Nebraska game and a broken leg during the early-October Purdue game made him into a lesser form of himself. And even before then, there were moments at the beginning of games when he looked lost -- his passes would be late, or completely overthrown, and his feet were actually stapled to the turf. So, yeah, a half season where every game starts out poorly and the results are a mediocre-looking quarterback whose probably not in the top twenty percent of national quarterbacks.
But that isn't really the Lunt that Illini fans know. I started to think more about Lunt and the numbers he put up when he did play. After the month of September (the only month where he played more than three halves), Lunt was completing 66.7 percent of his passes on 952 yards with 7 TDs, 3 INTs, 6 sacks and a 151.8 passer rating. That was the best passing stats from the B1G.
(Yes, I realize that the 2014 B1G lived and died by the run game, but every B1G team, besides OSU, would love to have a quarterback like that. If college football had in-season trades, couldn't you see Wisconsin offering up one of their big, burly O-linemen for Lunt or even Aaron Bailey? And wouldn't you -- with the then-knowledge that we had both Lunt and Bailey -- be all for that? I would, and so would Badger fans.)
As I previously stated, Lunt had a knack for poor starts. (These stats include games against Purdue, Iowa, Penn State, and exclude the 8 passes from the bowl game.)
Lunt saved the game multiple times. Was it partially his fault that the Illini were in the hole in the first place? Possibly, but it's hard to be too mad when he nearly single-handedly wins the game with a set-the-field-on-fire comeback. He was lights out in the fourth quarter. He'd make 30-yard completions look easier than short, slant passes, and before long, the Illini were victors after just previously being Midwest embarrassments.
And, news flash, in 2015 he'll be a more experienced, more mature, more prepared junior. In other words: he should be better than he was before. Lunt will also be throwing to an established receiver core that he didn't have last year. By my account, almost everything points to improvement. Almost everything.
Lunt hasn't played one college season without some kind of major injury. There was the broken left fibula this year, and a knee injury in 2012 while at Oklahoma State. In football video games, there's always a number associated with how well a player can resist injury -- a score of 99 would probably mean that the player could still play after getting hit by a truck; a 0 would probably mean he would die from being tackled. Lunt is honestly somewhere around the low 60's right now. Some players just can't stay healthy -- it sucks, but it happens -- our quarterback could be once such guy.
And, in fact, that partially scares me because this same situation kinda happened with Indiana last year. Many people speculated that 2014 could maybe, possibly be that one winning season that has evaded the Hoosiers since 2007. Then, half way through the season, Nate Sudfeld goes down with a leg injury and never returns. The passing offense cratered because there weren't any backup quarterbacks truly prepared for the job. And what makes this story hit even closer to home is that Indiana had a dual-threat QB transfer out of the program during the previous spring. Does that not sound exactly like Illinois right now?!? If time is a flat circle then this is an exact sign that it's coming for us next!!
Believe me, I don't want that to happen, but if it did, I'm sure you'd want to be educated on the state of the backups. Right before the bowl game we had three worthy quarterbacks: O'Toole, Lunt, and Bailey, in that order. Now, we have one of those since O'Toole graduated and Bailey correctly decided that his QB talents could be used somewhere else. Behind Lunt are three freshmen. The good news is that they aren't bad quarterbacks.
Chayce Crouch, a 3-star recruit, used his redshirt up this past year and is now the heir-apparent to the throne. He'll be the one that will likely be leading the second offense in the Spring Game. After him is Jimmy Fitzgerald, a Centennial High School product (that's in Champaign) who might be a hidden gem. During his junior year, he was ranked as a 4-star but when a leg injury (yes, another quarterback leg injury) kept him from playing his senior year, his ranking fell to three stars. As sneaky awesome as his future may be, his best current option is to redshirt this year. There's also Jeff George Jr., the son of the in-college, draft day legend, Jeff Scott George. He seems to be the least capable of winning a B1G game, but a) QB depth is something you never want to be caught without, and b) who doesn't like a feel-good father-son legacy?
So now I would expect you to understand what I mean if I were to say that the Illini are sitting precariously on a cliff. After Lunt, the talent gap is a long ways off in 2015 and it is becoming sickeningly obvious that the success of this season will rely heavily on Lunt. Can he stay healthy? Do we get first quarter-Lunt or fourth quarter-Lunt? Can he begin to handle the pressure of a pass rush? Is he a Top 25 quarterback?
He could. Lunt has the ability and the offensive system to break into the national spotlight, but health and consistency could be his downfall. He might not be a Top 25 quarterback right now, but he is one of the Top 25 most important. Without him, the Fighting Illini are a drastically different team.