Werner: Illini staff pushing quarterback Wes Lunt to liven up to spark the offense

Illinois coaches' public constructive criticism comes as an effort to get more out of their senior quarterback. Will it work?

CHAMPAIGN - Wes Lunt is an introvert. People normally don't like that out of their quarterback, including (apparently) the Illinois coaching staff.

Lunt thrives most on devouring film, defensive tendencies and the game plan. He's not the one to give many fiery speeches -- though teammates say when he speaks, it's worth listening to.

Lunt probably isn't the one to liven up your weekend party. But his coaches are publicly urging him to liven up the Illinois offense.

"I want to see him lay it on the line," Illini offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said Monday during weekly media availability. "I've talked to him a lot about it, that I think the one thing he's lacking or the one thing he needs to move forward is just a little more passion, a little more intensity, the ability to completely lay it on the line for your team and have everyone see that the quarterback is going to be diving and jumping and he's going to be emotionally invested in the game and he's going to compete like crazy, run when he needs to run."

Lunt needs to be special for Illinois (1-2) to have a successful season -- especially during Big Ten conference play, which starts Saturday at No. 15 Nebraska -- but he has been far from it.

Lunt's surface stats look fine. He ranks sixth in the Big Ten with 221.7 passing yards per game with a 62.2 completion rate and a 6-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Many teams across the country would take those numbers from their quarterback. But those stats look pretty empty after Illinois was beaten by a combined 49 points during the last two games against North Carolina and Western Michigan.

The Illini staff has high expectations for Lunt. He hasn't reached them. The Illini rank 11th in total offense, 11th in scoring offense, 10th in the Big Ten in passing efficiency, 12th in third-down conversion rate and 11th in red-zone offense.

That isn't all on Lunt, of course. He has little help around him, thanks to a porous offensive line (12th in sacks allowed and 12th in rushing offense) and receivers who struggle to get open. The harsh truth probably is that Lunt doesn't have the environment around him to succeed. A pocket passer needs a healthy running attack, a good offensive line and receivers who can get open. Lunt has none of that.

But his coaches have singled out their quarterback. After the 34-10 loss to Western Michigan, Smith specifically mentioned needing more from Lunt. He did the same Monday. McGee on Monday went even further with the constructive criticism, which will draw even more public focus on Lunt.

Part of a quarterback's job, which has no statistical measure outside of wins, is to lift those around him to do better. Lunt has not.

The perception out there is that Lunt has lied down. He takes the check down short of the sticks rather than pushing it down field. He retreats or falls down at the sight of pressure rather than trying to avoid it or fight it off to prolong the play (mobility isn't a strength of his physical skill set). The perception, outside the locker room and now apparently in the coaches' offices, is that Lunt hasn't shown enough toughness or leadership.

"Not only are you the quarterback, but you're the captain," McGee said. "The team's going to follow the captains. They all voted for those kids. They were not our vote as a coaching staff. The players voted who they wanted as a team. Those leaders have to show our team the level intensity that you have to compete with, the level of passion and the ability to just lay it on the line."

'We believe in Wes'

That's harsh criticism of Lunt, especially from his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. But part of the Big Ten quarterback experience (and NFL quarterback quarterback experience, which is Lunt's goal) is living under the microscope. The microfocus on Lunt -- though Illinois has issues everywhere -- has exposed warts.

"It's playing the position," McGee said. "It's being the captain of the team. It's being the fifth-year senior quarterback of the team. I mean, he's the one who signed up to be the quarterback. He's been the quarterback his whole life. He's won state championships here in the state. Now, you're the captain of the team. There's a lot of responsibility that goes on with that also."

McGee made it clear, as his head coach Lovie Smith famously has done before him: Wes is his quarterback.

http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1710916-mcgee-want-to-see-lu... After two weeks of offensive struggles, the Illinois offensive coordinator said he hasn't given thought of handing the reins to redshirt sophomore Chayce Crouch nor redshirt freshman Jeff George Jr., neither of who shares Lunt's ceiling (even if we're currently witnessing Lunt's floor).

"No, we believe in Wes," McGee said. "There could be things that other kids could give us out there, but we believe in Wes. We're working through the process now."

But it's clear the Illinois coaching staff -- which is experienced enough to know that their words during press conferences and media availability will filter back to the players -- is sending a message to its senior quarterback (possibly a last-ditch effort?). He probably needs to hear it.

In fact, the team probably needs to hear. If the coaches will challenge the senior captain quarterback, they're all on alert.

Time is running out for Lunt to leave whatever legacy he desires at Illinois just as time is running out for the rest of this senior class. For now, he's known as the quarterback who puts up big stats against lower-level teams but loses to power-five teams (2-11). Fair or not, fans more fondly remember Reilly O'Toole, who replaced an injured Lunt in 2014 to go 3-2 over the final five games to make a bowl game.

Time is running out for Lunt to leave a better impression on NFL scouts, who love his big arm but knock him for toughness, lack of mobility and ability to raise those around him.

The question is whether the message will work. 

"I think I can (show more emotion) in my own way," Lunt said on Monday. "I am who I am. That's the way God made me. I think I will continue to be that way but try to show more emotion however that may be when the situation rises."

'Hard to be someone you're not'

Maybe the Illini coaching staff's public constructive criticism is fruitless. Lunt's laid-back personality might not respond to such public prodding, which may signal part of the problem. But the effort is worthwhile.

Lunt, who has owned up to making mistakes on the field in the last two losses, has to know that what he's doing isn't working. But he doesn't want to be an actor on the field, yelling and screaming just for the cameras.

"It's hard to be someone you're not," Lunt said. "I think everybody can relate to that, just not being who everyone wants you to be. I'm going to try to be the best me I can be and lead the offense in the best way I can."

Lunt has had a lot of trauma in his career that may have shaped the quarterback he is now. He's suffered multiple serious injuries, he transferred after gaining and then losing the starting job at Oklahoma State as a true freshman, he hasn't had much talent around him and he lost his head coach and offensive coordinator during a tumultuous last calendar year. All those experiences can make it difficult to trust your environment, whether its the offensive line to protect your health or your receivers to get open.

But no one wants to hear those excuses. Nobody wants to hear the sob story. And to his credit, Lunt has publicly shouldered a lot of blame for the early offensive struggles.

http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1710990-lovie-discusses-recr... Illinois coaches raved about Lunt during the offseason. They love his arm, his accuracy, his intelligence and his work ethic. But quarterbacks, more than any position in sports, have to give more.

They often must be the voice of the team and the heart of the team. Many outside observers think Lunt is lacking in both areas. The coaches have sent the message that they think likewise.

"We had a lot of heart-to-heart conversations with a lot of our big guns because when you get to conference play, it's about your top players playing well," McGee said. "It's about the guys you read about, the upperclassmen, your big-time players. They got to show up and play well."

Can the introvert come out of his shell? If Lunt does, will it help him complete that big pass or avoid that costly sack? If he does, will it push the offensive line to block better or the receivers to run better routes? If he does, will it simply help an otherwise very flawed Illinois team win more games?

"You got to completely sell out for 60 minutes because you only get so many of those opportunities," McGee said. "Your body language has to be showing that you're in a position of power at all times. Never can get too high or too low. There's a lot when you're being a quarterback."


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