Football season is almost here! In just 39 days Illinois will be facing off against Kent State at Memorial Stadium. Over the next few weeks, The Champaign Room will be previewing the 2015 season with position previews, player profiles, biggest storylines, and more. Make sure to check back each day for something new.
First up is our position preview series, where we'll examine the strength and weaknesses of each group on the field. Today we'll be kicking things off by taking a closer look at Wes Lunt and the Fighting Illini quarterbacks.
Returning Starters: Wes Lunt (JR)
Key Losses: Reilly O'Toole (graduation), Aaron Bailey (transfer)
Other Returners: Chayce Crouch (RS-FR)
Newcomers: Jeff George Jr. (FR), Jimmy Fitzgerald (FR)
Illinois battled through a lot of adversity at quarterback in 2014. After four seasons of Nathan Scheelhasse holding down the fort, Wes Lunt was named the new starting quarterback to open the season. Lunt put up great numbers during non-conference play, but he proceeded to go down with a broken leg in October. That opened up a window of opportunity for Reilly O'Toole. Though his performance was up-and-down at first, he eventually cemented himself as the team's No. 1 option despite Lunt being cleared to play towards the end of the season.
O'Toole graduated this Spring and sophomore Aaron Bailey, who was frustrated over his lack of playing time, decided to transfer to Northern Iowa. Barring disaster, that means Wes Lunt will be the team's starter for the 2015 season. The backup role will be a competition between redshirt-freshman Chayce Crouch and a pair of newcomers: Jeff George Jr., and Jimmy Fitzgerald.
Crouch has been in Bill Cubit's system for a year and was hand-picked by the Illinois offensive coordinator on the recruiting trail. Jeff George Jr. is, obviously, the son of Illini great Jeff George; it remains to be seen if he has the physical tools of his teammates, but there's always a chance that he's inherited some skills from his father. Lastly, Champaign native Jimmy Fitzgerald joins Illinois as one of the top-ten prospects from the state. He's coming off an ACL injury so it'll be interesting to see if he can rebound and continue to develop this year. For more information on Fitzgerald, check out our interview with him back in December.
This one is a no-brainer. The starting quarterback may even be the Illinois' most important player regardless of position. The 2015 season will hinge on Wes Lunt and the team's fate is expected to be directly linked to his performance. With both O'Toole and Bailey gone he'll need to step up in a big way.
The Illini need Lunt to a) stay healthy and b) be more consistent. Last year, Lunt was shaky at times and he never really seemed comfortable until the 4th quarter of games--which isn't necessarily the worst thing to critique a quarterback for. If Lunt can figure out how to put it all together, he has the potential to be one of the most talented players in the Big Ten.
Can Wes Lunt stay healthy? If not, will Chayce Crouch be ready to fill in?
The biggest problem Wes Lunt has had in his entire college football career has been his ability, or lack thereof, to stay healthy. Going back to his days at Oklahoma State, he's played in just 14 out of a possible 26 games. His leg should be fully healed by now and if everything goes according to plan he can hopefully lead Illinois to seven wins and a second-straight bowl game.
Given his history, though, it's more than likely than not that Lunt will miss at least a couple of games. Will Chayce Crouch be ready if that happens? Again, Crouch was handpicked by Bill Cubit and he's already been in the system for a year. We obviously can't expect the redshirt-freshman to come in and perform like Reilly O'Toole in the event of an injury to Lunt, but he should be able to keep Illinois from becoming a complete laughingstock.
Projected Depth Chart
|1st string||Wes Lunt|
|2nd string||Chayce Crouch|
|3rd string||Jimmy Fitgerald OR Jeff George Jr.|
Lunt is the obvious choice for first-string. The backup position, however, will be decided in Rantoul next month. For now, we're giving Crouch the nod because he's got a sizable head start on both Fitzgerald and George.