Quarterback Wes Lunt is the front-runner, but UI coaches want backups to develop, too.
At the top of Illini football hierarchy, Tim Beckman and Bill Cubit haven’t seen it as necessary or advantageous to name a starting quarterback.
They announced in advance that 15 spring drills would provide three-way competition ending with an equal-opportunity spring game at 2 p.m. Saturday.
Now, understand, they know. Beckman, who works with the defensive backs in practice, saw Wes Lunt repeatedly last fall when Lunt ran the scout team against his regulars. And Cubit hasn’t hidden the fact that he views Lunt as possessing ideal skills for his pass-oriented system. While it’s too early for comparison, there are those already mentioning Lunt in the same sentence with Tony Eason, Jeff George and Kurt Kittner.
Beckman remains coy, saying Tuesday: “Honestly, me and Bill haven’t sat down and really talked about it.”
All of which bothers a WDWS caller, who accused the Illini of obfuscation and worse, as though Beckman and Cubit have some disreputable intent, or at least an obligation to “come clean.”
Really? What’s the hurry? Is there a game next week?
The situation reminds of the so-called spring “competition” between Joe Kelly and Carlos Martinez for the fifth spot in the St. Louis Cardinals’ pitching rotation. Now, that was obfuscation on Mike Matheny’s part. Martinez outpitched Kelly by a wide margin — and will be a starter at some point — but Matheny prefers him for long relief at this juncture and kept Kelly in the rotation. So it wasn’t really a “competition.”
The difference, in the Illini case, is that Lunt came in as the odds-on favorite and has proved himself through 14 sessions. His skill and accuracy have been the talk of practice.
So why not make it official? They will but, up to now, there have been good reasons to hold back and let it work itself out.
(1) On two occasions when he started as a freshman as Oklahoma State in 2012, Lunt suffered disabling injuries. It is vital to have a backup fully engaged and ready on short notice. That falls to upcoming senior Reilly O’Toole and sophomore Aaron Bailey, both of whom will be obliged to prepare for each Illini game next season with a level of intensity comparable to a starter.
(2) O’Toole has emerged as one of the senior leaders on this squad, and Illini staffers don’t want to do anything to discourage that. O’Toole can play a critical role in summer workouts.
(3) Bailey will receive a special opportunity on the Orange squad Saturday because Lunt and O’Toole are on the opposite team, and Bailey will be supported by the best running back (Josh Ferguson), the top tackle (Simon Cvijanovic), the No. 1 guard (Ted Karras) and the hottest new receivers (Geronimo Allison and Mikey Dudek).
Bailey arrived last year with outsized credentials and, now that he has had significant learning time, this could be his most important opportunity.
It’s never fun to be the backup. But in football, backups are critical because you’re liable to be No. 1 in an instant. Starting quarterbacks take a lot of hits, even if they’re not runners, and don’t always make it through an entire season. We saw that with Nathan Scheelhaase in 2012.
Former Illini line coach Eric Wolford, fifth-year head coach at Youngstown State (the Aug. 30 opponent here), won’t learn much from Cubit’s offense Saturday.
First, Cubit will keep his system under wraps. What you’ll see is called vanilla. Second, senior tight ends Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse haven’t engaged in contact all spring and will be withheld.
“We’re so different without Jon and Matt,” said Alex Golesh, who handles the tight ends and running backs. “Matt has been practicing, but we’ll hold him out. He could play if this was a game.
“We’ll look like an entirely different team next fall, and our wideout issues will be partly resolved when the tight ends are back. They’ll play together in certain packages because they are two of our best 11 offensive players. Jon (6-3, 240) brings so much to the table, and Matt can stretch the field vertically.”
Davis arrived from Louisville as a blue-chip catch but has been repeatedly hampered by injuries. Will this be his year? If so, he could give Cubit’s offense a big lift.
Another who could play a bigger role is Devin Church, third-year sophomore from Michigan. He has shown special skills as a receiver and now is listed as No. 3 RB behind Ferguson and Donovonn Young.
“Church is No. 3 on the depth chart, but we’re doing a lot of things with him, not only receiving but running,” Golesh said. “You could see him with the first unit in certain packages.”
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.