This is it for Wes Lunt. The senior Rochester native has one shot in the form of this upcoming season to color his legacy as an Illinois quarterback beyond "a viable Big Ten quarterback" or "not the problem." Lunt has been solid in his two years at Illinois, but while he hasn't been the problem, he hasn't been the solution Illinois fans once hoped he could be.
It's been an up-and-down two years, from his record-setting debut, to his three fourth-quarter comebacks in 2014, to his five missed games including the Heart of Dallas Bowl, to losing his best receiver for a year, to his coach being fired, to an impressive win against Nebraska, to missing bowl eligibility, to his coach being fired again, to Lovie Smith's hiring, to losing his best receiver for another year. It's certainly been eventful. Too often for Lunt, though, his play hasn't been allowed to take center stage.
For Lunt it starts with that thing quarterbacks are always doing — throwing the ball. The guy can wing it. He's impressed Illinois fans with his ability to make confident throws downfield and zip passes to the sidelines, throws his more-successful predecessors Nathan Scheelhaase and Juice Williams couldn't readily make. But when you're Illinois football and you have a good thing, other stuff tends to get in the way. Hurt receivers, changing offenses, sideways playcalling, weak offensive line play, weak running game, coaching investigations. Anything really. For the Illini this year, and for Wes, who has his own professional football dreams, the focus has to be allowing Wes's arm to do the talking. When that's been able to happen, the results have been generally good.
A lot around the arm has to fall in place — the line has to improve, the run game has to be steady, the receivers have to catch, the system has to flow, the coach has to trust him. You just hope the Illinois coaching staff can pull it together and give Lunt his best shot yet to be successful. Lunt's another year wise and played one game less last year than in his other two seasons combined. He's dealt with injuries of the nagging sort and the sidelining sort. A year of good health and fewer drops, with the focus on the field rather than the circus show around it, and we'll see the best version of Lunt yet. If things break down around him, though, or within his body even, it could be another year lost for the passer due to reasons ultimately outside his control. Lunt's last impression on Illini fans will most influence how he's remembered, whether that's as a pro-level passer whom Illinois was lucky to have, or as a fable of untapped potential — the right talent enrolled for the wrong four years.
Other returners: Chayce Crouch (SO)
Redshirt freshmen: Jeff George Jr., Jimmy Fitzgerald, Alex Mussat
Newcomers: Eli Peters (FR)
Still in high school but looming for the future: Cameron Thomas (HS SR)
Behind Lunt is a lot of youth and promise, none of which Illinois wants to rely on this year. Crouch managed to fire off 34 passes last season and complete 15 of them for 160 yards and two touchdowns. Beyond that, no one on Illinois' roster has seen action. Crouch figures to be the backup heading into (the part of the season formerly known as Camp Rantoul), but it's likely to be challenged by Fitzgerald and George.
George's performance was one of the few obvious threads at open spring scrimmage, as he lit up the field and drew the attention of the media and fans alike. It wasn't just that his passes ended up caught more often, either. His arm strength looked tremendous, he put the ball right where the receiver needed it to be, and he had command of the field, not simply abusing a favorable matchup or linking with a favorite target. Granted, this is literally about five throws we're talking about here. But they were really good, and he was the one who made them that day, no one else. Not even Lunt. He also threw an interception, though, so maybe he does have weaknesses. It's Crouch's position for now, though, and George made the first noise to challenge that standing. I'm sure there will be more, and if Lunt is to be sidelined with injury, surely the waters will be tested with all potential parties, with Lovie Smith looking for the hot hand at the right times.
Cam Thomas gets a mention because he's big news this week, and because he could very well be starting for Illinois in 14 months. A lot could happen, and he could not, but he's a great get for Lovie Smith's staff, and any of the current backups would need to see ample time and use it well to assert themselves as a front-runner for the starting job after Wes's last stand. Hopefully Lunt's last year gives next year's starter something that's hard to live up to.