Lunt's happy to be close to home
ROCHESTER — The sweet aroma of Jane Lunt’s cooking wafts through the back screen door.
It’s a smell one picks up even before entering the kitchen of Wes Lunt’s boyhood home in Rochester on a sunny and humid midweek afternoon in June.
So when Wes Lunt sits down in his family’s first-floor living room on a two-seat red couch, he doesn’t hesitate when asked what his favorite food is. He can smell it. Probably taste it, too, because it’s only about 20 feet away.
“Lasagna,” he said. “My mom’s making it right now.”
The route to the Lunt household is a series of quick, helter-skelter turns once you enter the town of 3,696 people coming in from Route 29.
It’s not uncommon for folks to drive right past it.
No signs doting the success of Andy and Jane Lunt’s three children are visible in the large front yard or in front of the garage.
“I don’t know how many pizza deliveries I’ve had to go out and chase down,” Wes said with a laugh.
College coaches won’t have to chase Lunt anymore.
Not after the prolific high school passer who initially chose Oklahoma State two summers ago is now at Illinois.
He’ll arrive on campus July 8.
Practices start Aug. 4 in Champaign before Camp Rantoul begins Aug. 12.
Lunt will be there, running the scout team this fall while he sits out the season because of transfer rules before he has three years of eligibility starting in 2014.
“I’ve always wanted to play at Illinois,” Lunt said.
“It was more of that than anything else. They have everything I want and more. I like the coaches a lot. The academics are great. I like the athletic director. It all starts with him. The football will take care of itself. I’m looking forward to all of it.”
Illinois fans and coaches are, too. With good reason, according to Ken Leonard, the legendary coach at Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin and father of Rochester coach Derek Leonard.
“When Wes was a junior, I went to all of his playoff practices,” Ken Leonard said. “At that point, I told Derek right away, ‘As far as a passer, he’s the best I’ve seen in high school. He’s got a chance to be an NFL guy.’ If you’re a receiver, you want to have someone who can really sling the ball. Wes can do that.”
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An Ultimate Fighting Championship match is on the flat- screen television hanging above the mantel in the Lunts’ living room. The sound is muted, much like everything else on this particular afternoon.
No phone calls from friends or family. Or college coaches. Or from the media.
“I understand (the media’s) job,” the 19-year-old said. “It’s for the fans, and I respect that. This past month has been crazy with the media. I feel bad because I haven’t returned a lot of calls because my family and I decided that it was best for us if we just kept our mouths quiet until we made our decision.”
Jane Lunt lays down a tray carrying two glasses full of water.
It’s clear she’s a woman who is used to in-home visits pertaining to her son.
Wes casually sips the water periodically while swirling the ice cubes around and toying with a nearby pillow.
For someone who was off limits to reporters his freshman season at Oklahoma State because of Cowboys coach Mike Gundy’s team policy, Lunt has done his best to not let the attention and speculation of what college he would end up at overwhelm him.
Or get in the way of his sister’s wedding.
News broke on May 9 of Lunt’s departure from Stillwater, Okla.
He took an unofficial visit to Illinois a week later on May 16.
The first trip to meet with Illinois coach Tim Beckman, a man Lunt had never even spoken to before Beckman called him once Lunt’s release from Oklahoma State came through, was brief. He went with his mom and older brother Wil, 23, who starred as Rochester’s quarterback before Wes and played his college football at Western Illinois, had breakfast, toured the facilities and left. They didn’t have time for much else.
Details and final arrangements for his 25-year-old sister Anne’s wedding had to take place. The oldest child in the Lunt family was getting married May 18 at Rochester Christian Church.
“I felt bad because I wanted all the attention to be on Anne,” Wes said. “It’s pretty funny looking back on it now, but I know my parents were stressed out that week, for sure.”
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Now Anne Hocking, Wes’ older sister didn’t fret too much about her younger brother’s decision to transfer.
To her, he’s just Wes, the sarcastic and witty younger brother who happens to throw a football better than most.
She was more concerned about making sure Wes, who was a groomsman in the bridal party, showed up on time for all the wedding events and had the right clothes.
“It really didn’t steal any spotlight just because Wes didn’t want to make it a big deal,” said Hocking, who is a nurse in Springfield. “He’s not the kind of kid who would do that. He actually mentioned that he was sorry that it was taking away from the wedding.”
It’s hard for Lunt to go anywhere in Rochester where he’s not recognized. Standing by the blue “Welcome to Rochester” sign, the few cars that pass by honk their horn at him. He doesn’t mind, though.
“It’s helped just by developing people skills because you get to know everybody,” he said. “Everybody knows everybody. I wouldn’t change it for the world. I love Rochester, and I definitely think when I settle down, I’d like to be in a small town. It’s been a blast.”
Lunt will make history whenever he plays his first game at Illinois. No one from Rochester has ever played football for the Illini. Although the Rockets have won three straight Class 4A state titles and have alums like Sean Robinson (Purdue), Riley McMinn (Iowa) and Garret Dooley (Wisconsin) playing in the Big Ten, the school has only had football since 1996.
“I had never thought about that, but that’s weird,” Lunt said. “I know all those other kids got offered by Illinois. It will just be weird to play them.”
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Some people might think it’s weird Lunt chose Illinois.
Gundy initially placed restrictions on where Lunt could transfer. No team in the Big 12. The move made sense to Lunt. Why would his old coach want him to possibly beat his former team?
But no team in the SEC or Pac-12 could go after him as well.
“I did not understand those,” Lunt said. “(Transferring) is a lot harder than it sounds; I found that out. It took a while for me to get my release, and once I finally got it, Oklahoma State controlled what schools I could be contacted by. That’s kind of how it works.”
Like Lunt has indicated, he grew up an Illinois fan. Juice Williams was the main player he enjoyed watching.
It helps, too, when the Illini have a season like they did in 2007, upsetting Ohio State and advancing to the Rose Bowl, on an impressionable teenager who was just starting to tap into his football potential. Which is what Lunt was as an eighth-grader who had just played wide receiver the previous fall in his first time playing organized football since he was in second grade.
Lunt was in attendance on New Year’s Day 2008 in Pasadena, Calif. He witnessed the 49-17 loss to Southern Cal with some family friends, and his seats were around the 20-yard line not far from the field. If he gets a chance to head back West anytime in the next four years, he’ll have a better view.
“I hope the fans are patient with us because you don’t see programs win 10 games overnight,” Lunt said. “It’s going to be a process and a process that I’m looking forward to in trying to make Illinois better.”
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Contrary to Internet and message board speculation, Lunt did not meet Jeff George on his two visits to Illinois.
“I wish,” Lunt said with a laugh. “That was probably the most-asked question by my friends.”
The second visit to Illinois happened shortly after meeting with Louisville head coach Charlie Strong, Louisville offensive coordinator Shawn Watson and Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, a Heisman Trophy candidate heading into the 2013 season, on May 29.
“It was a great visit and great hospitality,” Lunt said. Andy Lunt had not yet met Beckman. It was a key reason why Lunt went back with both his parents for a second visit to Illinois a few days later.
“The second time was an official visit,” Lunt said. “I went to Coach Beckman’s house and had dinner. It was a one-day trip. There was really no wining and dining.”
Perhaps the cooking of Kim Beckman swayed Lunt.
“It was a nice meal that his wife prepared,” Lunt said. “It was just very comfortable and very good food.”
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Social media was abuzz the past month about possible Lunt sightings and speculation.
Lunt didn’t feed into it, though. He can’t. He, like incoming freshman quarterback Aaron Bailey, doesn’t have Facebook or Twitter.
“I stay off that,” Lunt said. “There’s always going to be people with new stories and new rumors coming out, and you’ve just got to ignore it.”
His sister said Wes is laid-back and easygoing at first, but is the jokester of the family.
“If you ask me, yeah (Anne and Wil) gave me grief, but if you ask my siblings, they would say I got everything I wanted,” Lunt said. “That’s typical.”
Now all Lunt — who displays the laid-back nature when he says he doesn’t have a favorite type of music (“Anything that’s on I’m a huge fan of”) — wants is a chance to prove he can start in the Big Ten. And improve upon a freshman season that saw him throw for 1,108 yards, six touchdowns and seven interceptions in six games, five of which he started.
Injuries — a dislocated kneecap and the first concussion of his football career — derailed his freshman season after Gundy named him the starting quarterback after spring practices in 2012.
The decision by Gundy to start Lunt as a true freshman even surprised Lunt.
“You don’t expect it,” he said. “I called my mom and dad right after the meeting, and all I said was, ‘I’ve been named the starter.’ They said, ‘Wes, are you there?’ because I wasn’t even talking because I was overwhelmed. I had never been through anything like that.”
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Lunt is diplomatic about his time at Oklahoma State and in Stillwater.
The 2012 black Hyundai Sonata he drives — which has a football on the floor of the passenger seat so he can throw anytime — enjoyed making the 10-hour trip from his home in Rochester to Stillwater.
“I’d mostly drive there and back because we could have a car on campus,” he said. “The parking was really good on campus. The good thing about it is the speed limits in Oklahoma are 75 mph, so you could get on some of the turnpikes and fly.”
Lunt dislocated his kneecap in the third game against Louisiana-Lafayette on Sept. 15. He recovered in time to start Nov. 3 at Kansas State but suffered his concussion in that game.
He only threw three more passes the rest of the season, in Oklahoma State’s 58-14 win against Purdue in the Heart of Dallas Bowl on Jan 1.
“I’d say I kind of just thought about (transferring) after I didn’t go back in after my concussion was healed,” Lunt said. “I wanted to play through spring ball and see if I could win the starting job back again.”
Gundy didn’t name a clear-cut starter this spring after Lunt, Clint Chelf and J.W. Walsh all saw action last year and in the spring.
“After that, I just knew we were both going in different directions,” Lunt said.
Having his offensive coordinator and primary recruiter at Oklahoma State, Wheaton native Todd Monken, depart in mid-December to become the new head coach at Southern Mississippi also weighed on Lunt.
“I was definitely sad by it,” he said. “It was a bittersweet moment. I was happy for him because that’s what he wanted, and he got it, but getting to know him for the past two-and-a-half years, it was hard to say goodbye.”
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Lunt doesn’t have many big plans before he becomes a student at Illinois and throws his name in there with Bailey and Reilly O’Toole to possibly become the starting quarterback in 2014.
He wants to see the summer comedy “This Is The End” at some point.
“I’ve heard a lot of good things about it and that it’s pretty funny,” Lunt said.
He’s heard favorable reviews of a few pizza places in Champaign, namely Garcia’s and Papa Del’s.
He’ll bring along a movie collection that favors comedies like “Wedding Crashers,” “Happy Gilmore,” and “Billy Madison,” plus most featuring Will Ferrell.
Lunt wants to major in marketing. If the NFL doesn’t work out — and no, he hasn’t given much thought to the possibility of playing in a league with quarterbacks he admires like Joe Flacco, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning — he’d like to become a high school or college athletic director.
He spent some of his time during his visits to Illinois with Mike Thomas, picking the Illinois athletic director’s mind on a variety of topics.
“I like to see how they all got to where they were at today,” Lunt said. “I just would love to be involved in sports. As long as I get to be around sports (later in life), I’ll enjoy it.”
One item Lunt doesn’t enjoy? People chewing with their mouth open. It’s his biggest pet peeve.
He’d like to visit Las Vegas. On his 21st birthday (Oct. 7, 2014) with a few friends. It won’t happen. Illinois hosts Purdue on Oct. 4 and plays at Wisconsin the following week. The trip to Sin City will have to wait.
Much like Lunt’s college football career. It’s on hold. For the moment.
Then again, it’s only 423 days until Youngstown State visits Memorial Stadium for the Illini’s 2014 season opener. Of course, 423 days ago Wes Lunt never probably imagined his life would take the course it has.
“It’s been pretty crazy,” he said. “A roller coaster is the best way to describe it. There’s a lot of ups and downs; more downs than ups. It’s helped me mature, and I feel a little older than I am. I know this process is going to help when I’m looking for a job one day. A job interview is going to be nothing compared to this. It’s definitely the craziest year I’ve ever been through.”
Wes Lunt isn’t the first quarterback to transfer to Illinois. Here’s a look at five who did — and how they fared in their first season on the field with the Illini:
Name Year COMP. ATT. Yards TDs INTs
Jon Beutjer 2002 193 327 2,511 21 11
The skinny: Wheaton Warrenville South grad who initially went to Iowa wound up throwing for 6,031 yards in three seasons, but he never had a more productive season than his first.
Jeff George 1988 212 366 2,257 9 8
The skinny: Mike White brought him here, but John Mackovic had future No. 1 pick during his first season, which ended with a 14-10 loss to Florida in the All-American Bowl.
Scott Mohr 1987 106 212 1,436 7 7
The skinny: One of many junior college transfers White landed during his tenure, Mohr came to Illinois via San Mateo (Calif.) Junior College but split time with Brian Menkhausen and Peter Freund during a 3-7-1 season in what was White’s last year leading Illinois.
Shane Lamb 1986 115 227 1,414 7 13
The skinny: Waited behind Jack Trudeau for three seasons after playing one season at Mira Costa (Calif.) College out of high school, but California native struggled during 4-7 season.
Tony Eason 1981 248 406 3,360 20 14
The skinny: Before he went on to an eight-year NFL career and before he established a single-season record for passing yards in his first season with Illinois (now second after he threw for 3,671 yards in 1982), Eason spent two seasons at American River (Calif.) College, which is where current Illini defensive back Zane Petty played the past two seasons.