Breakout Candidate: Illini WR Zach Grant

After a season full of drops from his receivers, Illini QB Wes Lunt is looking for a reliable target and is turning to a familiar name: former Rochester teammate Zach Grant.

CHAMPAIGN - When Zach Grant transferred to Illinois from Northern Illinois, many assumed the receiver's previous prep success with Illini quarterback Wes Lunt would translate quickly into Big Ten success.

But even Lunt, who has known Grant since grade school, said that a record-setting connection in Class 4A Illinois high school football -- Rochester won back-to-back state titles in 2010 and 2011 while Grant set the state record for most receiving yards in a season (2,310) and had the second-most receptions in a season (131) in 2011 -- didn't mean much at this level.

"The college game is hard," Lunt said. "At Rochester, we didn't play the athletes we did here every day. I think it just takes a while. The speed of the game is fast. With the tools you have, you have to work with them and learn to be the best football player you can and work around all that."

Grant's road to a Big Ten role has been long and winding. He started his college career at NAIA program St. Ambrose, where he played for one season before transferring to NIU for a spring before arriving at Illinois prior to the 2013 season.

Despite his on- and off-the-field relationship with Lunt, Grant struggled to handle Big Ten strength and speed. He played just one game in 2014 and played mostly on special teams as a junior in 2015. He enters his senior season with just one career catch.

But given his output during the first two weeks of training camp, Grant's production will grow exponentially this fall.

"Every opportunity that I've gotten is awesome," Grant said. "I feel like I've gotten more this year. It's been great, and I'm trying to make everyone the best one."

With star receiver Mikey Dudek out to start the season again with a torn ACL, Grant has emerged as the Illini's starting slot receiver and Lunt's security blanket. "He's done a really good job," Lunt said. "He's worked his tail off since Day One and just been consistent with his work ethic and his attitude, and it's finally paying off. Coach (Garrick) McGee likes to play seven, eight guys and he's going to be one of them. He's a senior, waited his turn, worked his butt off and it's his time. He's just got to keep fighting for it."

The Illini wide receiver corps has talent, but it is young and inconsistent. Players like Sam Mays and Dominic Thieman have flashes of great ability but haven't shown reliability. Even veterans like Justin Hardee and Dionte Taylor have struggled with drops -- a scary proposition given last year's historic number of drops (60) last season.

Through those struggles last season, Lunt came to rely on freshman Desmond Cain, who despite his lack of explosiveness, dropped just two passes and caught 53. Cain has sat out the last week with an unspecified injury, allowing Grant to further emerge as the go-to guy in the slot.

"Zach Grant, he adds a level of maturity to the room and stability," wide receivers coach Andrew Hayes-Stoker said. "He's calm. He's a calming force. He adds a really good demeanor. When the pressure's hot, he seems to have a cool head. That's reassuring. It helps other guys too and takes pressure off of guys that may not quite be ready to play right now. They can see a guy like Zach Grant and say, 'Hey, if he can do it, I can do it.'

"I think the game is slowing down for him. He's able to find the right holes and sit in the right windows because of that. He's not out there rushed with elevated blood pressure. He's out there playing with a cool head and able to see the big picture."

Grant said the new coaching staff and new offense under coordinator Garrick McGee has opened up more opportunities for him and helped him "slow down a bit" on the field.

"I think I've  just learned a lot from these coaches coming in and have tried to be a sponge and learn everything Coach Stoker's given me and Coach McGee," Grant said. "Yeah, I think I've definitely grown from the spring since they've all gotten me. The routes that I've been running I think are good for me and the type of player that I am. I feel like I fit in the system in a little bit just being able to find different holes and things like that anda  lot of different routes, breaking in and out." Grant doesn't have blazing speed, but he has shown this fall that he can get open and get behind defenders. He's not the biggest or most athletic but on Thursday, he leaped over Illini nickelback Chris James for a big down-field catch. Grant simply looks like a solid Big Ten slot receiver.

"Second-level releases are huge (in the slot)," Grant said. "Just being able to get off press (coverage) and finding different holes and soft spots in different coverages and just being consistent."

That includes simply catching the ball, something many of Grants teammates haven't done as consistently.

"Obviously as a receiver, the one thing you have to do is catch the ball," Grant said. "I try to go out there and do that every time and be as consistent as I can for (Lunt). If he throws it my way, just put two hands on it and bring it in."

Some thought Grant's record-setting high school connection with Lunt would immediately translate to Big Ten success. Grant needed more time to get up to speed.

But in two weeks, he'll likely run out of the tunnel as an Illini starter -- and again as one of his long-time friend's most trusted targets.

"Absolutely, it'd be awesome (to be the starter)," Grant said. "The main thing is winning, though. I just want to end this last year with a bang with all the senior. We definitely deserve it."


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