Mediocre Illini passing numbers not complete reflection of QB Wes Lunt

Illini passing attack not where Illini need it to be, but UI coaches say it's not because of their talented quarterback

CHAMPAIGN - Wes Lunt tries not to show it, but he’s understandably frustrated.

The Illinois quarterback knows the offense is capable of much more than his current numbers: 60.3 completion percentage, 5.86 yards per pass attempt and six touchdowns to two interceptions.

And his numbers should be better. But an inexperienced Illini receiving corps has dropped 26 passes and has caused several more completions due to running wrong routes.

Just cut those mistakes in half and Lunt’s numbers would look more like this: 70.0 completion percentage, 1,000-plus yards, 9-10 touchdowns.

Illinois quarterbacks coach Ryan Cubit sat down Lunt on Sunday  -- following the offense’s frustrating performance (two touchdowns in six red-zone opportunities) in a 27-25 win over Middle Tennessee -- to empathize.

“I had a long talk with him on Sunday because I had an experience just like this my last year of playing (at Western Michigan),” Ryan Cubit said. “I remember dealing with it, and there’s a lot of frustration that sets in. That’s what my advice to him was. It ain’t like the guys (receivers) aren’t trying. It isn’t about effort. It just takes a bit of time to understand the system that we’re running. That was my advice to him, ‘Hey, don’t get frustrated. It usually takes about half a year for guys. And once it clicks, it clicks.’”

Led by Lunt, a potentially high-powered Illini passing offense -- which currently ranks fifth among 14 Big Ten teams in passing yards per game but 10th in pass efficiency -- was expected to be the force that gave the Illini a chance to surprise this season.

But injuries ravaged the Illini of two of its three best and most experienced wideouts, sophomore Mikey Dudek (76 catches last season) and senior Justin Hardee (47 career catches).

Despite some fans starting to doubt the Illini starting quarterback, the Illini coaching staff said Lunt has handled the adversity -- dropped passes, wrong routes and injuries -- as well as they could hope.

“I’m really pleased with him,” Ryan Cubit said. “He’s not getting frustrated. If guys aren’t in the right spot, he’s coaching them and leading them in the right way. He’s still bringing them aside. We just got to keep hammering this thing out, and eventually it’s going to crack where we get this thing going and it’s as pretty as can be.”

 

Communication breakdown

Watch a college football Saturday and you'll see some interesting signs. No, I'm not talking about the ones on ESPN's College GameDay or in the stands (if they're allowed).

Many college football teams use posterboard-sized play cards on the sidelines, usually with four random pictures of celebrities, sports personalities, cartoons or other logos.

They're entertaining for the viewer, but they do serve a purpose. For many no-huddle teams, they signal the play to all 11 offensive players. Though which picture signals the play is unknown to viewers, including opposing defenses.

The play cards provide a quick way for all of the offensive players to get on the same page quickly. Though, Illini interim coach Bill Cubit has never understood them.

"Every time you ask somebody (why they use cards), it's like trying to get into Fort Knox," Illini interim coach Bill Cubit said. "It's all a bunch of secrets and nobody tells you anything, so I've never been involved in it. I don't even know what it's about."

The Illini system is more traditional and pro-like.

The Illini coaches signal a play in to the quarterback, Lunt. He reads the defense. If he doesn't like the play call against the defensive alignment, he'll change protection and the play -- calling out the play (in the Illini's terminology) to the offensive line and signaling the new play to the receivers.

That's a lot of communication, and many times this season, the lines of communication have failed -- mostly due to a lack of focus from the receivers, the Illini coaches say.

“They got to be really alert, those wideouts," Bill Cubit said. "What’s happening is they’re getting the signals, going back and checking the coverage, and then they check with Wes because he’s going to check the route depending on what kind of coverage there is. We had a couple guys lose focus on big plays."

Said Lunt: "If their eyes aren’t on me, they won’t see the check. So the biggest thing with that is to make sure their eyes are always on me during the play.

“It’s hard because I understand they have to watch the ball and look at the defense too. But the main thing is they have to look at me because at the end, I’m usually giving the play.”

Lunt largely makes the correct decisions at the line of scrimmage, 92 percent of the time according Ryan Cubit's film breakdown.

Cubit said the system is more simple than many think and that the players work on the communication process all offseason. But executing it in games takes time for inexperienced players, whose minds may be racing during their first Big Ten football games.

“It usually takes about half a year,” Bill Cubit said. "Very rarely do you see a guy just come in and he setes the world on fire. You could go back to Mikey (Dudek), but really Mikey got better as the year went on. There were times in the beginning where he was OK and then became really good. That normally is the way the system works. It just takes time.”

Earning trust

Lunt admits that he trusts senior Geronimo Allison (24 catches for 362 yards through four games) -- who was added to the watch list for the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation's most outstanding receiver -- more than any current receiver on the team.

Lunt trusts that Allison will be in the right place (not two yards too deep or too shallow) most of the time, at the right time (so he can throw to the spot before Allison makes his break) and will likely win a battle with the defensive back (though Allison has had a few big drops, too).

Sophomore wide receiver Marchie Murdock has 18 catches for 166 yards and two touchdowns but has had as many bad moments as good moments and should probably have closer to 25-30 catches.

Junior Dionte Taylor (eight catches, 72 yards) and sophomore Malik Turner (six catches, 32 yards) have mostly been non-factors -- both under 10 yards per catch -- though Turner might be the best blocker among Illini receivers. Freshmen Desmond Cain (15 catches, 101 yards) and Sam Mays (three catches, 52 yards) have shown flashes but have been thrown into the fire earlier than the staff would've liked.

What do the other receivers need to do to gain Lunt’s trust?

“I think just showing that he cares by watching extra film, texting me, trying to meet with me, asking me questions,” Lunt said. “I’m always open to meet with guys and talk to them about football, about questions they have. And just giving 100 percent effort on the field. When the ball’s in the air, they have to show that it’s ‘my ball.’ I think the guys are getting there.”

Even if the receivers haven't completely gained his trust, Lunt must play like they will do their jobs. Otherwise, defenses may key on Lunt locking on to Allison or Lunt might take too long to make decisions, giving defenses more time to jump routes.

“For him, he just has to continue to throw the ball on time and hits his spots like he knows how,” Ryan Cubit said. “Because if he gets frustrated and he starts waiting for guys to come out of break and he thinks they’re going to be somewhere they’re not and there’s some miscommunication, then his game falters. And that’s what we can’t have because then we’re done and we’re not going to be able to move the ball."

Lunt skeptics

Maybe it’s our fault in the local media for building up too-high expectations for Lunt. But we report what we see and what we’ve seen in open practices is a quarterback with most of the physical traits pro teams are looking for in a pocket passer.

Lunt is tall, has the arm talent to make all the throws (including the indefensible back-shoulder throws) and is very accurate. And according to Illini coaches and players, he has the work ethic and study habits pro teams covet.

Of course, questions remain about Lunt. Can the oft-injured, statuesque quarterback stay healthy? Can he avoid staring down one side of the field, or one receiver? Can he succeed against top-notch defenses? Is he good enough to lift an Illini team that has so many holes elsewhere to seven or eight wins?

There isn’t enough film on Lunt to suggest he’s an elite prospect. But he is a prospect.

Yet, there is a contingent of Illini fans who seem to doubt Lunt can get it done.

Maybe it’s because the team won more Big Ten games behind Reilly O’Toole (who led the Illini to three wins in their final five games) at the end of last season. O’Toole’s solid athleticism gave the Illini another dimension, and he was effective though limited in the passing game (his passing efficiency was 20 points lower than Lunt and he had stats of 6.52 yards per pass attempt and 10 touchdowns to eight interceptions).

Also, the Illini defense was much improved down the stretch, especially in the three wins -- against more beatable opponents. And Lunt basically played on one leg when he returned from a fractured fibula that sidelined him for four games.

Now, with the passing game struggling, Lunt's skeptics -- fairly or unfairly -- seem to be growing.

But don’t count the Illini staff among them. The simple fact is that Lunt's abilities -- and the lack of experience at quarterback behind him -- give the Illini their best chance to win.

Quarterback is not the Illini's issue. Is Lunt the answer to all its questions? Few quarterbacks would be. Just like Christian Hackenberg -- graded by most NFL Draft experts as a first-round prospect -- is not the cure to all of Penn State's ails.

“(Lunt's) game grade outs have been really high, higher than any quarterback I’ve been around," Ryan Cubit said, "where you get to the point that you get picky. People don’t see that because they want to see the stats, they want to see the gaudy numbers and they want to see the yards and the touchdowns.”

The Illini think they have a difference-making pocket passer. Lunt will have more opportunities to show it against big-time competition, starting with Saturday’s Big Ten opener against Nebraska.

But he needs the receivers around him need to start making a positive difference, as well.

“I think he’s got a good head on his shoulders," Ryan Cubit said. "He understands where we’re at. Every week’s been better. These guys are getting better.”

 

Pocket passers

Some in the Illini media and fan base have suggeted that a pocket passer cannot succeed in college football. Let’s dispel that, now.

While it's tough to contain a quarterback who is good at both running and passing, just a quick, simple study of the last six Big Ten champions shows that a team can succeed with an efficient, yet largely immobile pocket passer.

YearB1G ChampionQuarterbackPass yardsRush yards
2009 Ohio State Terrelle Pryor 2,094 779
2010 Wisconsin
Michigan State
Scott Tolzien
Kirk Cousins
2,459
2,825
-30
-39
2011 Wisconsin Russell Wilson 3,175 338
2012 Wisconsin Joel Stave
Danny O'Brien
Curt Phillips
1,104
523
540
-51
-82
99
2013 Michigan State Connor Cook 2,755 76
2014 Ohio State J.T. Barrett
Cardale Jones
2,834
860
938
296

What does this show? A pocket passer, like any quarterback, needs the right support around him: a run game, reliable wide receivers and a good defense. In the past, Illinois has had success and struggles with both pocket passers and dual-threat quarterbacks.

Lunt likely doesn’t have the talent around him to win a Big Ten title. Could Connor Cook -- likely a first-round pick -- even do that? Could Tommy Armstrong Jr. do it?

Or he needs to be the best quarterback in the game (Cam Newton, Cardale Jones’ three-game run, etc.). Lunt hasn't come close to showing that. But if he has the right pieces around him (and stays healthy), like recent Michigan State quarterbacks, he can succeed.


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