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The starter: Wes Lunt, junior
Like Derrick Rose with the Chicago Bulls, one must assume Wes Lunt stays healthy to project a successful Illinois football season. He's that important to the team. The problem, of course, is the super-talented Lunt has not yet shown that he can stay healthy through an entire season.
He played just five games as a true freshman at Oklahoma State – the fact that he started five games as a true freshman at a very good program proves his talent – due to two separate injuries, a dislocated knee cap and a concussion. After sitting out the 2013 season due to NCAA transfer rules, Lunt missed five games due to a leg fracture. While the injuries have nothing to do with each other, Lunt – through no fault of his own – now has the reputation as a "brittle" player.
Lunt's arm strength is NFL-caliber. His accuracy (63.5 completion percentage last season) is NFL-caliber. His study habits are NFL-caliber. His frame (6-foot-5, 225 pounds) is NFL-caliber. Without his fourth-quarter heroics last season (he led the Illini to three fourth-quarter comeback wins), the Illini wouldn't have sniffed a bowl game. But it was Reilly O'Toole, not Lunt, who led the Illini's late charge to bowl eligibility, quarterbacking victories against Minnesota, Penn State and Northwestern. Lunt limped to the finish, further immobilized by his injured leg.
Goal number one for the offense this season is to protect Lunt, while keeping him dangerous. With a shaky offensive line group in front of Lunt, how does Illinois do that?
Lunt practiced under center much more during the offseason. Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit thinks that will allow Lunt to better read defenses and better communicate with his offensive line. Lunt watched film of Tom Brady to learn how a slow-footed quarterback behind a sometimes shaky offensive line can stay upright and thrive. One key: get rid of the ball quick. Expect the Illini to use a lot of quick reads and quick hitters.
Another key: Lunt must make subtle movements in the pocket (when there is one) to evade defenders and buy time. He did this more effectively during the nonconference, when defensive lines were easier to handle and his leg was fully healthy. Also, since Lunt is not a threat to scramble for first downs, like O'Toole, the Illini will need a more effective run game to keep defenses honest, and from teeing off on Lunt.
Yes, I know some are thinking, 'Wait. Didn't you say Illinois needs Lunt to stay healthy to succeed? Didn't O'Toole quarterback all three of Illinois's Big Ten victories last year.' That's correct. It's still hard to explain how that happened – you could argue that the schedule was weaker or that a multi-dimensional quarterback made Illinois tougher to defend – but I wouldn't bet that a backup will do that again, especially when those backups have no collegiate experience.
Chayce Crouch entered spring as the surefire No. 2 quarterback. He's smart, big (6-foot-4, 225 pounds), athletic and agile. But he was really inaccurate during spring ball. He played a bit like a freshman, which isn't too big of a surprise, given that he received mostly scout team reps as he redshirted last season. But Illinois can't have its second option behind an injury-prone Lunt playing like a freshman.
Crouch's struggles slightly opened the door for two true freshmen who surprised Illinois coaches. After suffering a torn ACL during the first game of his high school season, Champaign Centennial product Jimmy Fitzgerald didn't play during the spring game. But coaches rave about his intelligence and athleticism. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound signal callers throws better than advertised too.
The real surprise was walk-on Jeff George Jr. The son of Illinois football's lone No. 1 NFL Draft pick (Dave Wilson went No. 1 in the 1981 supplemental draft and Jim Grabowski went No. 1 overall in the 1966 AFL Draft), has the most slender frame (6-foot-3, 205 pounds) of the Illini quarterbacks. But George has good arm strength (surprise!) and a great knowledge of the quarterback position (surprise!). The two true freshmen didn't play like true freshmen and closed the gap on Crouch.
There is no battle for the QB1 spot. But there could be a battle for QB2, which – given the health history of QB1 – is a significant battle.