ROCHESTER — Wes Lunt already has won big at Memorial Stadium.
No reason the strong-armed quarterback can’t do it again.
That’s Derek Leonard’s take on Lunt’s decision to transfer to Illinois.
“The kid is special,” said Leonard, Lunt’s high school coach at Rochester. “It’s huge for the program. It changes the look and gives them a boost.”
Lunt, who threw for more than 1,000 yards as a true freshman at Oklahoma State before deciding to transfer last spring, won’t be eligible until the 2014 season. Still, his arrival does Illinois and second-year coach Tim Beckman a world of immediate good.
“It definitely matters who has committed to your school, especially at quarterback which is a natural-leader position,” ESPN recruiting analyst Jared Shanker said. “It could do wonders for how the rest of the Class of 2014 shapes up.”
A coaching change and 14-game Big Ten losing streak has taken a toll on Illinois recruiting. Beckman’s Class of 2013 ranked 47th in the country, according to Rivals.com. His Class of 2014 checks in at No. 59.
“Receivers, running backs ... other players will want to follow,” Leonard said. “He’s that good.”
Lunt, who phoned Beckman with his decision Monday morning, will compete for the starting job in 2014 along with Reilly O’Toole and Aaron Bailey. He will have three years of eligibility remaining.
“It gives Beckman options going forward,” Shanker said.
Lunt addressed his situation during a news conference at his high school Monday night, according to the Springfield State Journal-Register.
“I’ve always just loved Illinois. I grew up a huge fan,” Lunt told reporters. “I like the coaches — great enthusiasm, very passionate. I could see that when they were recruiting me.”
Asked if he expects to start, Lunt said: “Anywhere I go, I’m going to have to compete. I know that. I didn’t leave OSU because I didn’t want to compete. ... I expect to compete anywhere I go. Hopefully I become a starter.”
Illinois spent Beckman’s first season in an offensive funk, ranking last in several Big Ten categories including points (16.7 per game), total offense (296.7 yards), first downs (16.4) and red-zone offense (74.2 percent).
Lunt, meanwhile, started immediately at Oklahoma State — and with a flair, completing all 11 pass attempts in his debut against Savannah State. But injuries slowed his progress, Lunt eventually asking to leave the Cowboys.
Coach Mike Gundy initially limited Lunt’s options, downtrodden Illinois and Sugar Bowl-winning Louisville emerging as finalists.
“Playing in your home state. There’s something about that that is special,” Lunt said. “You can see family and friends at every game. That’s really nice.”
Illinois was quick to make contact when Lunt became available.
“As soon as they could, they were on me,” Lunt said. “That’s fun to see. You want that, especially if you’re from Illinois and getting contacted by your state school.”
Lunt led Rochester to state titles in 2010 and ’11 at Memorial Stadium. That familiarity played a role in his decision. So did Beckman’s hiring of Bill Cubit as offensive coordinator after last season’s 2-10 disappointment.
“He wants to help turn things around there,” Leonard said. “There were a lot of things going for him: He grew up an Illinois fan, Coach Cubit’s offense intrigued him, it’s closer to home ...”
Lunt isn’t the first high-profile quarterback to transfer in from another Division I program.
Fellow move-ins Jon Beutjer and Jeff George rank seventh and eighth, respectively, in career yards passing at Illinois. George came from Purdue and passed for 5,189 yards and 31 touchdowns in two seasons. After starting at Iowa, Beutjer played three seasons at Illinois and finished with 5,190 yards and 39 TDs.
Tony Eason, who ranks fifth on the UI career passing charts, played two seasons of junior college football before shining at Illinois (7,031 yards, 38 TDs). Dave Wilson, who threw for a school-record 621 yards against Ohio State in 1980, also was a juco transfer.
Leonard said Lunt, who enrolled early at Oklahoma State, will benefit from the year off.
“He’s supposed to be at (high school) prom and he’s named starter (at Oklahoma State),” Leonard said. “That’s tough on any kid. Now he gets that year back.”
Coming out of Rochester, Lunt never seriously considered Illinois, which was coached by Ron Zook. Beckman’s hiring was too late to make a difference, Leonard said.
Beckman’s job status didn’t sway Lunt.
“Of course, you look at that and you want to be with the same staff the whole time you’re there,” he said Monday. “Unfortunately, that’s college football. Coaches are always moving on, trying to move up or, if they don’t meet standards, they get cut. That’s part of it. I understood that when I made my decision. They’ll be there as long as I’m there. I’m going to try to make sure of it.”
Beckman’s offense, however, made a difference.
“Just the little I’ve seen, just watching spring highlights ... they are a pass-happy offense,” Lunt said. “Coach Cubit has done a great job everywhere he’s been. Just looking at the Western Michigan quarterbacks, they threw for a ton of yards, which is fun to see as a quarterback. It’s going to take more than one person. We’re going to have to get the tools around me and work hard and continue to get better.”
Wes Lunt will become the seventh News-Gazette All-State Player of the Year to suit up — for football — at Illinois (John Dergo, POY in 2006, wrestled as an Illini):
YEAR POY HIGH SCHOOL POS.
2011 Wes Lunt Rochester QB
2010 Reilly O’Toole Wheaton Warrenville South QB
2008 Terry Hawthorne East St. Louis WR
2002 Pierre Thomas T.F. South RB
2001 Tim Brasic Riverside-Brookfield QB
1999 Ryan Clifford Naperville Central RB
1998 Jon Beutjer Wheaton Warrenville South QB