CHAMPAIGN – Although 48 years old, when he walks into Memorial Stadium Jeff George is still viewed as Illini football royalty.
He was at Illinois for just two seasons but George is remembered as a cannon-armed gunslinger who led John Mackovic’s first two Illini teams to bowl games. He became bigger-than-life when he was the first overall pick in the 1990 NFL Draft.
Juice Williams is also looked at fondly when he makes an appearance. Many fans remember him as the quarterback who helped knock off No. 1-ranked Ohio State while leading Illinois to the Rose Bowl after the 2007 season.
Even Nathan Scheelhaase, who is still in the building as a part of Lovie Smith’s current staff, is viewed with respect. The dual threat quarterback was a very tough kid who became Illinois’ all-time total yardage leader and spearheaded bowl victories over Baylor and UCLA.
In each case, those Illini quarterbacks did something to win the respect of the fans. They played with toughness. They played with a visible passion that ignited teammates and stirred fans.
But barring a sudden turnaround, current quarterback Wes Lunt is likely to finish his Illini career without such heartfelt appreciation. Despite numbers that pass the eye test (nearly 5,200 yards, 34 touchdowns, 10 interceptions), Lunt has never won over the masses and the one bowl game that Illinois attended during his tenure is credited to Reilly O’Toole, a backup quarterback who rode to the rescue in 2014 when Lunt was hurt.
Now a fifth-year senior, Lunt was hoping to go out in style, hooking up with the Lovie Smith coaching regime and new offensive coordinator Garrick McGee.
But after a blowout win over Murray State, Lunt has had rough games in lopsided losses to North Carolina and Western Michigan. Following a bye week he’ll be the starter again Saturday when Illinois plays its first road game at Nebraska.
During that bye week, every player was scrutinized and asked to improve and that includes Lunt, who is one of four team captains.
Based on what he says he has told Lunt, McGee is asking his quarterback to dig deeper, to play better and to show more leadership than he ever has in the past. McGee precisely spelled out his message and in doing so painted a picture of a guy who is too laid back, too quiet and is not throwing himself into the job with the zeal this team needs.
“When you get to conference play, it’s about your top players playing well,” McGee said. “It’s about the guys you read about, your upperclassmen, your big-time players. They have to show up and play well.
“I want to see Wes lay it on the line. I’ve talked with him a lot and the one thing he needs as we move forward is to show a little more passion, a little more intensity...the ability to have everyone see that their quarterback is going to be diving and jumping and is going to be emotionally invested in the game, that he’s going to compete like crazy and run when you have to run.
“You have to completely sell out for 60 minutes because you only get so many of those opportunities. Knowing you are in a position of power at all times, you never get too high or too low. There’s a lot when you are the quarterback and he’s not only the quarterback, he’s the captain and the team is going to follow the captain. The team voted for those kids. They voted who they wanted to lead the team and those leaders have to show them the level of intensity and passion you will have to compete with. Just the ability to lay it on the line.”
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When Lovie Smith closed practice to the media last week, there was speculation the coaches were making high-profile position changes they wanted to keep under wraps.
McGee said that’s not the case at the quarterback position.
“No, we believe in Wes,” he said. “There are things that the other kids could give us out there, but we believe in Wes and we’re just working through that process right now.”
When asked if he understood that what he’s asking of Lunt may be outside his comfort zone, McGee smiled.
“I didn’t know that, but I’ve been learning it,” he said. “It’s playing the (quarterback) position. It’s being the captain of the team. It’s being the fifth-year senior quarterback of the team. He’s the one who signed up to be the quarterback and he’s been a quarterback his whole life. He’s won state (high school) championships here. Now you’re the captain of the team and there’s a lot of responsibility that comes along with that also.”
When presented with McGee’s comments, Lunt steered away from citing specifics he’s working on.
“We’ve talked about the season and where we want it to go,” Lunt said. “What can we do to perform better on Saturday? He wants me to hold myself to a higher standard, to make good decisions and put us in good situations. It’s a great honor to be named captain and my job is to prepare and do everything I can to make this team successful.”
McGee’s portrayal of Lunt as a player who would benefit by exuding more outward fire is accurate. That he almost never runs with the ball annoys fans who would go crazy if he just once tucked the ball and raced for a first down. Plow through a tackler and the stadium would erupt. So would the Illini bench.
Instead, his signature play this season was a deer-in-the-headlights look of panic when North Carolina’s pass rush closed in on him, causing him to drop the ball to the turf in an awkward and costly fumble.
But Lunt has always avoided contact, in part because the previous two head coaches told him his survival was more important than risking injury. Now he has an offensive coordinator who expects more.
Furthermore, it shouldn’t be ignored that Lunt has played for four head coaches and seven offensive coordinators dating back to his freshman season at Oklahoma State prior to his transfer to Illinois. It has not been a smooth road.
It remains to be seen whether Lunt can deliver what McGee is asking for. No one expects him to become an option quarterback with mad dashes all over the field. But the belief is that when the senior quarterback is low key and plays without apparent fire – even if Lunt says a fire burns within him – it affects the entire team.
McGee is keeping Lunt in place and hoping for better results. But if Lunt can’t deliver rather soon, it won’t be a surprise if McGee turns in another direction.