Illini QB Wes Lunt under the microscope as Illini offense sputters

As Illinois offense struggles, Illini quarterback Wes Lunt takes a big brunt of the outside criticism -- such is the life of a Big Ten quarterback

CHAMPAIGN - Wes Lunt has some skills of an NFL pocket passer prospect. But Lunt is the quarterback of a struggling college offense which ranks last among Big Ten teams in scoring (16.3 points per game) during conference play.

So Lunt is the target of a big chunk of outside criticism. Such is the life of a college quarterback.

Ten games into the season, Lunt ranks fourth in the Big Ten in passing yards per game (224.1), but he ranks 101st of 115 qualified FBS passers in pass efficiency rating (110.9). In three of his last four games, Lunt’s passer efficiency rating -- based on completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdown rate and interception rate -- has registered below 101.0. The median season efficiency rating in the Big Ten is about 130.0.

During six conference games, Lunt has a completion percentage is 51.8 percent and is averaging just 5.6 yards per pass attempt. He ranks 106th among FBS passers in yards per pass attempt (5.7). He ranks 107th in yards per completion (10.38).

Illinois (5-5, 2-4), which heads to Minnesota this week to try and clinch its second-straight bowl bid, ranks 101st among 128 FBS teams in offensive touchdowns per game (2.4) and 123rd in redzone scoring percentage.

The slow-footed Lunt also adds nothing in the run game, losing 121 yards (mostly on sacks) this season.

Despite those numbers, Illinois interim coach Bill Cubit -- the Illini offensive play caller -- is satisfied with Lunt’s play this season, given that the Illini rely so much on the strong-armed signal caller.

“I know there’s a lot of discussion (about Lunt), but nobody understands what this guy really does for us,” Cubit said. “He’s got to get the play, then he goes up to the line of scrimmage and has about four seconds to figure this thing out. He’s got to know where the techniques are, what run to go against, what’s the coverage. He’s got to change the coverage. He’s got to change the protection if there’s a blitz coming. People are coming all over the place. And then he’s got to go through matchups. Do that in about five seconds.

“He gets us in good plays. We’re not in bad plays. We don’t always run the play as well, but he gets us in good plays."

Tough environment

A simple numbers game isn't a complete representation of Lunt's season, though.

His completion percentage has been crushed by 49 receiver drops over the first 10 games. Take away just half of those -- which still would be a large number of drops -- and Lunt’s completion percentage would top 61.3 percent. Those drops have killed drives and taken points off the board.

Also, Lunt has been without two of the Illini’s top receivers (and fastest playmakers) with season-ending injuries to sophomore Mikey Dudek, a Freshman All-American after totaling 1,038 receiving yards last season, and senior Justin Hardee. Lunt also was without four of his top five running backs for the first four Big Ten games, including versatile weapon Josh Ferguson, who likely will get a shot to play in the NFL.

Cubit also has instructed Lunt to play conservative. Unlike the last two seasons, when Illinois had to put up a flurry of points to win games to make up for a dreadful defense, the Illini -- thanks to a much-improved defense that ranks in the middle of most defensive categories -- are trying not to lose games on offense. Instead of forcing passes into tight windows, Lunt -- who has thrown just two interceptions over 247 attempts (!) during Big Ten play -- is instructed to throw the ball away or at a receiver’s feet.

“He’s handling the game,” Cubit said. “We’re trying to play to our strengths a little. We don’t want to take many chances out there because defensively we’re playing pretty decent. Why are we in these games all the time? Because we’re getting them into the fourth quarter.”

There also seems to be a growing thought in these parts that Illinois cannot succeed without a dual-threat quarterback, even if some of Illinois' best teams have had pocket possers. Some fans want to see Lunt try to run more. But again, he is instructed not to run and take hits.

“He’s doing everything we ask him to do,” Cubit said. “When he scrambles, we don’t want him to take a big shot. If he goes down, what do we do? We got to protect him.”

Lunt, who played wide receiver early in high school and also played basketball, would like to show fans he can run -- “I can run the ball, if I want,” he said with a smile -- but he follows orders.

“It’d make my completion percentage better,” Lunt said with a chuckle. “Joking aside, I think I just have to be smart. I understand completely what they want me to do.”

Mobility certainly would help the statuesque Lunt. But a running game would probably help more.

Illinois’ rushing attack ranks 13th of 14 teams in the Big Ten and if you take away the outlier of a 382-yard performance against Purdue, Illinois is averaging just 57.8 rushing yards per game during conference play.

“I think he’s doing a great job,” Illinois senior guard Ted Karras said. “We put him in some tough spots, especially for a guy who we rely on his arm to get us where we want to get to. Everyone has to do their part. As an o-line we have to just keep him up and keep him healthy, which we’ve done a good job of 10 games in a row here. We’ve got to finish strong.”

A pocket passer needs a run game to soften up the secondary. Without a threatening rushing attack -- Illinois’ run package personnel is weakened due to injuries to running backs and tight ends -- many teams have played 2-man coverage, using press coverage on the Illini receivers with two safeties deep.

But Illinois has to pass to move the ball, and defenses know it. Lunt leads the Big Ten with 393 pass attempts this season. Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong Jr. is second with 338 attempts. Opposing defenses know what’s coming, forcing Lunt to throw with surgical precision.

“I think he’s having a pretty good year,” Cubit said.

Under pressure

Now, Lunt has not been perfect. Far from it.

On Saturday against Ohio State, he looked uncomfortable in and untrusting of the pocket and admitted that he rolled out too early a few times. He missed a few deep opportunities and was inaccurate on a few of the sideline throws he usually makes (to his credit, those are the “NFL throws” that give him such a high ceiling).

Some fans also criticize Lunt’s demeanor. Some think he doesn’t show enough emotion -- he is a steady, lead-by-example type -- yet, some criticize him for showing too much frustration. Tough crowd to please.

Lunt has admitted frustration with the drops and the injuries, though coaches say he’s been nothing but positive with the young players.

“I think there definitely is some pressure,” Karras said. “Sometimes, you can see him get frustrated. You just got to keep fighting.”

Lunt hasn’t proven to be the pocket passer who can lift Illinois past all its issues -- injuries, lack of depth, inexperience at receiver, a lack of physicality on the line of scrimmage, etc. -- but few pocket passers could. Heck, top NFL Draft prospect Jared Goff has just one more win this season than Lunt. Not to say that Lunt is as good as Goff -- he has way more to prove -- it’s just an illustration that even some of the most talented quarterbacks can’t carry a team.

Lunt hasn’t produced a lot this season. But he hasn’t exactly had the ideal environment to produce, either.

Lunt hasn’t been the solution for all of Illinois’ issues. But he hasn’t been the issue for Illinois, either.

Lunt has flaws and the holes around him further expose those flaws.

No other Illinois quarterback -- three freshman: redshirt freshman Chayce Crouch or true freshman Jimmy Fitzgerald and Jeff George Jr. -- has the package of skills or experience to give Illinois a better chance of winning.

Lunt will continue to live under the microscope, even more so next season when NFL scouts take a deeper delve into his production, mechanics and makeup.

Such is the life of a quarterback.

“It’s week by week,” Lunt said of the weight on his shoulders. “I just got to keep fighting. I got to be positive. We’re 5-5 going into two more games. We kind of control our own destiny. We’re just going to keep fighting.”

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