CHAMPAIGN – It would be fun to be anticipate the upcoming Illini football season as a prelude to a major bowl game.
They do that in places like Columbus, Ohio, Madison, Wis., and Ann Arbor, Mich.
But I can’t do that.
However, it is with some relief to be able to talk about an Illini football victory coach Tim Beckman posted this week 68 days before the Aug. 31 season opener against Southern Illinois University.
And let’s face it, there haven’t been many victories to discuss.
Wes Lunt’s decision to transfer to Illinois from Oklahoma State is a triumph on more than one front.
Yes, he’s a very good player who will join the team this summer and be eligible to play for three seasons beginning in 2014.
Yes, he’s a quarterback, and as football fans we’re obligated to hyperventilate at anything and everything to do with the quarterback.
Yes, he’s an in-state kid (Rochester) who is making a decision to opt for the home-state school, even though more successful programs (Louisville) were extending their hand. Illinois needs to upgrade it’s in-state recruiting success so this counts as a one-player upgrade.
And, yes, his presence on the roster could impact the way other recruiting targets feel about Illinois. A wide receiver who was on the fence about the Illini will have to re-evaluate opportunities knowing that Lunt will either be his quarterback or be beaten out by someone who is surprisingly better.
And, finally, by all accounts, Beckman and his staff did a good job on this one. They jumped on Lunt early, they showed him the proper amount of love and they knew what sales pitch might work to bring him aboard.
That’s where Beckman gets steak on his plate rather than his lengthy run of beans and weenies.
Since last season’s abysmal 2-10 season ended, Beckman has made what we believe to be some positive changes on his coaching staff. None appears to be more significant than the hiring of Bill Cubit, the former Western Michigan head coach, as Illinois’ new offensive coordinator.
Everyone in the room was impressed the day Cubit was introduced. He’s an experienced offensive coach with a proven system and a track record of effective play-calling, something Beckman’s previous co-offensive coordinator did not have.
Cubit’s main problem as Western Michigan’s head coach was on the defensive side of the ball, something he no longer has to trouble himself with.
Cubit quickly won over senior-to-be quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and as we watched him at practice during spring ball, it was clear players respected him and enjoyed interacting with him.
Lunt said he connected with Beckman, and that’s good. But it is Cubit’s offense that made him believe he can flourish at Memorial Stadium. Calling it “pass happy,” Lunt likes the way Cubit’s attack puts the quarterback in position to shine. Sorry, but there’s no way Lunt picks Illinois without the change at offensive coordinator, a change Beckman gets credit for orchestrating..
Next season, Illinois will have four quarterbacks in the mix. Reilly O’Toole will be a senior. Aaron Bailey arrives this fall as a highly touted freshman from Bolingbrook. And Beckman has already received a 2014 commitment from Chayce Crouch of Newark, Ohio.
That’s not quite a traffic jam, but it would be if a strong-armed prospect out of Indianapolis accepts Beckman’s recent scholarship offer.
Jeff George – yep, the son of the former Illini quarterback star with the same name – recently participated in Illinois’ 7-on-7 camp and Beckman used the occasion to extend the offer.
I have not seen the younger Jeff George play. He’s at Warren Central High School, the same high school his dad attended.
Jeff Sr., you might recall, went to Purdue for a year, then left when the Boilermakers fired coach Leon Burtnett. He was headed to Miami but backed out of that deal and landed at Illinois, where for two seasons under John Mackovic he led Illinois to 16 wins, two bowl games and became the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft.
He had an unbelievable arm and they still talk about George’s workout for pro teams in Champaign, when he gunned it 80 yards and caused scouts to drool with their mouths open. Not only was his arm prolifically strong, he had one of the quickest releases anyone has ever seen.
His NFL career never matched that potential. He was on rosters for 17 years (late in his career as an insurance policy that never saw action), played for six different teams and threw for 27,000 yards and 154 touchdowns.
No way Jeff Jr. has dad’s arm, but maybe he’s still blooming. That said, adding another quarterback would be a luxury Beckman perhaps can’t afford given the many other needs up and down his roster.
For now, the arrival of another Jeff George is just provocative speculation.
Wes Lunt is actually on his way, and for the first time in a while it feels like there’s a ray of sun shining on the Illini football program.
It may not be enough to chase away all the clouds, but no one should blame Beckman for celebrating this one.