Illini Inquirer is breaking down one Illini football position group per day, leading up to the start of Illinois training camp on Thursday, Aug. 4.
Today, we start with -- what else? -- the quarterbacks.
The depth chart
Year: Redshirt senior
Stats: 24 career starts; 2015: 2,761 pass yards, 14 TDs, 6 INTs, 56.1% completion, minus-153 rushing yards
Analysis: For a second straight fall, there is no drama at QB1 -- though that will change next year -- as Wes Lunt returns for his third and final season as starter at Illinois. The big-armed quarterback can make all the throws, which is why he is an NFL prospect, similar to Indiana's Nate Sudfeld who was drafted by the Washington Redskins in the sixth round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Illini coach Lovie Smith compared Lunt to Kyle Orton, who was a fourth round pick of his Bears in 2005."Kyle made great decisions, threw the ball to the right person, good leader, teammates liked in him, believed in him," Smith said. "Our players feel the same way about Wes. Wes is a better athlete though." Lunt's production was limited by injuries in 2015 (missed five starts) and receiver drops (60) in 2016. His lack of mobility also limits the Illini offense. Still, Lunt is the strength of the Illini offense. But is there enough around him to succeed?
Year: Redshirt sophomore
Stats: Played in 10 games in 2015 as backup: 15-for-34 passing, 160 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT, 96 rush yards
Analysis: Chayce Crouch reminds me a lot of former NIU quarterback Jordan Lynch. Before you berate me, consider that I covered Lynch for a season in DeKalb. He was one of the toughest, most physical runners I've seen. But most of his completions were wide receiver screens. Jerry Kill never saw him throw when he offered, showing a great amount of trust in Mt. Carmel coach Frank Lenti at the time. Lynch had a shaky arm but went to an offense and a conference where he could succeed. He would not have been nearly as successful in the Big Ten. Crouch is a heck of a runner, the best by far in the Illinois quarterback room. But he also has the worst arm. His delivery is a little long and the ball often flutters. Crouch is strong enough and athletic enough to be a capable fill-in or subpackage option, which may make him the best No. 2 option this season. But does he provide enough as a passer to eventually be a starter?
Year: Redshirt freshman
Stats: 0 games played
Analysis: Of the backups, Jimmy Fitzgerald has the most complete overall skill set. He's not great at one physical skill set, but he's solid at most. Fitzgerald is a good athlete with good strength, so he can make plays with his feet. He also has a solid arm capable of making most of the throws, though his accuracy is still a bit inconsistent. Fitzgerald also brings a lot of intangibles. He's an outspoken leader of the younger classes and is liked by many. He reminds me a lot of former Illini Reilly O'Toole.
Year: Redshirt freshman
Stats: 0 games played
Analysis: Of the backups, Jeff George Jr. -- surprise! -- has the strongest arm. The son of the former Illini great and former NFL No. 1 overall draft pick flicks his wrist and the ball flies out of his hand. But George also is the skinniest of the quarterbacks and offers the least in the run game. George Jr. had a strong spring game and is known as a "gamer," but he must show consistency during practice. Bulking up 10-15 pounds wouldn't hurt. But the former grayshirt is a definite player in this race now.
1. How will McGee and Lunt coalesce?
For the Illini offense to be successful, the Illini must get a lot out of Lunt. As I said above, Lunt has been haunted by two things at Illinois: injuries and receiver drops. When you're an NFL prospect, pressure is high. When you're a Big Ten starting quarterback, pressure is high. When you're the lone player on your team's media cover, pressure is high. Lunt's arm talent is undeniable and the talent around him is questionable, especially with go-to playmaker Mike Dudek suffering another ACL tear. But fair or not, Lunt's Illini career will largely be judged on what he accomplishes this season. As a sophomore, he led the Illini to three come-from-behind nonconference wins, but it was O'Toole who made the big plays to clinch bowl eligibility. As a junior, Lunt was at the helm as the Illini offense cost the Illini a chance at back-to-back bowl bids as the Illini lost six of their last seven. For many reasons, Lunt's ceiling has not yet been reached at Illinois.
In comes new offensive coordinator Garrick McGee -- Lunt's fifth quarterbacks coach in five college seasons. While McGee prefers dual-threat quarterbacks, he has had success with pocket passers like C.J. Bacher at Northwestern and Ryan Mallett and Tyler Wilson at Arkansas.
"You definitely see that Wes' skillset is more of Ryan Mallett, Kyle Bolin and Tyler Wilson than it is Lamar Jackson," McGee said in March. "...As a coaching staff, we're trying to figure out which style we're going to go with to have a chance to win next year and it's going to be more of Mallett style, for sure."
Unlike former coach Bill Cubit, McGee uses more of an in-between-the-tackles power-run scheme (rather than mostly using outside zone schemes) and wants to use the run to set up the pass (and not vice versa). Can he employ both philosophies with his current personnel (lack of running back depth and strength up front)? Also, the previous staff did everything it could to keep Lunt upright and healthy. Lunt was encouraged to get rid of the ball as quickly as possible and discouraged to take any hits or run with the ball. Lunt isn't some great athlete, but he's better than most realize. Will McGee allow Lunt to run in very select situations?
Lunt can be great. Can he, McGee and the rest of the Illini offense allow us to see it?
2. Who's the backup in 2016 and the who's starter in 2017?
Crouch took a lot of No. 2 reps during the spring but not as many as he did during the fall. Crouch provides the biggest contrast from Lunt, so he may be the best complement if Illinois wants to use a subpackage in 2016. But why take your best player (Lunt) off the field? The truth is that Crouch seems to have a limited ceiling unless he can greatly improve his accuracy as a passer. McGee has been very coy about his No. 2 quarterback, telling us reporters this spring that he hopes we never find out the top backup (meaning Lunt would stay healthy). A few people I've talked to inside the program think the open 2017 quarterback battle will be between Fitzgerald and George. Fitzgerald has a solid skill set and great intangibles. Meanwhile, George seems to save his best for big moments -- those moments have been scrimmages so far. Eventually, McGee wants more athletic dual-threat quarterbacks -- like 2017 commit Cam Thomas and someone like 2018 target Quincy Patterson -- to run his offense.