CHICAGO — The Lunt recruiting factor appears to be kicking in.
There’s no rush of 300-pound tackles — the UI’s greatest need — but the ballyhooed transfer of Rochester’s Wes Lunt from Oklahoma State helped influence the recent commitment of three talented receivers: Springfield’s Malik Turner (6-foot-2, 205 pounds from Sacred Heart-Griffin), Californian Tyrin Stone-Davis (6-3, 195) from Pierce Community College and Iowa Western receiver Geronimo Allison, who played opposite new Illini Martize Barr. Allison picked Illinois over Kansas State.
The inference, of course, is that Lunt fits the dropback style of Illini offensive coordinator Bill Cubit and will be the quarterback in 2014, an assumption that overlooks the fact that super-athlete Aaron Bailey will have the 2013 season to get a leg up on the redshirting Lunt. In reality, this stacks up as a scintillating shootout next spring as the Illini, otherwise short-handed, pit two of the most touted in-state quarterbacks in recent years.
Lunt won Oklahoma State’s starting slot as a raw rookie but twice found himself on the injury list. Oklahoman Clint Chelf, now a senior, replaced Lunt for good after Lunt was intercepted three times and sidelined against Kansas State. In the last six games, Chelf led a team that averaged 47.3 points and hammered Purdue 58-14 in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Chelf went 17 of 22 in that game, Lunt 1 of 3 in a brief appearance. When Chelf held the position in the spring, Lunt elected to leave.
The question remains: What should expectations be for a first-year freshman — Johnny Manziel doesn’t count; he redshirted at Texas A&M — at such a leadership position? Suffice to say it is an enormous challenge and takes a special individual.
Big Ten viewers soon will learn more about this issue. Danny Etling is a four-star product of Terre Haute, Ind., who bypassed Austin Appleby and will vie with Purdue’s fifth-year senior Rob Henry. New coach Darrell Hazell promises a decision two weeks prior to the Aug. 31 opener against Cincinnati. At Penn State, five-star pickup Christian Hackenberg will duel with Tyler Ferguson, a transfer from College of the Sequoias. Etling arrived at Purdue early for spring drills, while Hackenberg is just leaving Penn State’s summer bridge program.
With experience so crucial to that position, well-stocked teams like Ohio State and Nebraska have huge advantages with Heisman Trophy candidates Braxton Miller and Taylor Martinez.
Scheduling plays key role
When evaluating teams, scheduling shouldn’t be overlooked.
Nebraska plays its first five games at home and could conceivably reach November undefeated by defeating Big Ten foes Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota.
Michigan, unbeaten at home since Brady Hoke arrived, has Notre Dame and Ohio State in Ann Arbor, no small consideration in the quest for a high spot in the polls.
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, noting the Spartans came up inches short in 2012 (five losses by four points or less), figures to regain some of those inches with a Big Ten start against Iowa, Indiana, Purdue and Illinois.
Wisconsin has the good fortune not to play either Michigan or Michigan State this season.
So before projecting W-L records, consider who they’re playing. It is not uniform. Further examples: If Minnesota beats UNLV on Aug. 29 at home, the Gophers only need to defeat New Mexico State, Western Illinois, San Jose State and homecoming foe Iowa to reach October unscathed. Contrasting that, Purdue opens at Cincinnati (10-3 last season), faces Notre Dame again and plays its first four Big Ten games against Wisconsin, Nebraska, Michigan State and Ohio State.
Football odds and ends
— Illini coach Tim Beckman noted at the Big Ten Kickoff affair that his 2-10 team in 2012 committed a turnover every 26 plays and gave up 38 sacks, two huge reasons why the offense sputtered. He also said veteran defenders Jonathan Brown, Houston Bates and Steve Hull missed 800-plus plays. Beckman further pointed out that Nathan Scheelhaase, who had survived two heavy ball-carrying seasons without getting hurt, was “dinged in the first game,” and it affected him most of the season. Speaking of injuries, here’s tight end coach Alex Golesh’s response when asked whether he was concerned about Jon Davis’ knee: “Yes.”
— The Ryan Nowicki incident was mentioned in Chicago but mostly skimmed over. He was the eighth Nittany Lions player to transfer when Illini coaches landed him amid high controversy a year ago. Nowicki is no longer with the team.
— Responding that he was unaware Nebraska will open the next five Big Ten seasons against Illinois, Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini turned to his offensive unit and spoke glowingly about it. “We wouldn’t trade this offensive unit for any in the country,” he said.
— Loved that Dantonio statement about the Spartans: “The foundation is laid, and we’re chasing the dream.”
— Devin Gardner is solid at QB, but if Michigan has an Achilles heel, it’s
that Hoke’s wide search for a backup went unfulfilled. Gardner took over
last year when then-senior Denard Robinson was hurt. Said Hoke: “We looked around to try to find a transfer. We just weren’t comfortable. In 32 or 33 years of coaching, I think how many times you’ve gotten to your second quarterback, and it hasn’t been very many.”
— Poor Ohio State. The Buckeyes lost their front seven on defense.
Then, while deflecting comments about recent OSU suspensions and the Aaron Hernandez case, Urban Meyer called Miller “one of the best quarterbacks in the nation,” said he’d “be disappointed if the offensive line isn’t one of the best,” and said his two tight ends are so talented that he’ll be forced to play both together at times. He said further that “our guys work too hard to have a few knuckleheads disrupt this program.”
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.