76th N-G All-State Football Team: Wes Lunt, Player of the Year
Height? Plenty of it. Sweet shot? Absolutely. Ball skills? Definitely.
Yep, Wes Lunt the eighth-grader seemed destined to be a basketball star.
But, just for fun, he went to a winter football workout with his older brother Will. Just for fun, he started firing passes. And Derek Leonard noticed. Soon.
"It was just natural," Leonard said. "He's effortless. He's the prettiest thrower I've ever seen."
The Rochester coach knows a little bit about quarterbacking. As offensive coordinator at Prairie Central, he worked with News-Gazette All-Stater Dylan Ward. After taking over at Rochester, Leonard coached N-G All-Staters Will Lunt and Sean Robinson, who earned a scholarship to Purdue.
But the best one of all might be the guy about to lead the Rockets to a second consecutive state title game. The one-time basketball player: Wes Lunt.
Oklahoma State sure thinks so. The Cowboys have pinned their future on Lunt, who accepted a scholarship offer in June.
The News-Gazette sure thinks so, picking Lunt as its All-State Player of the Year.
And the recruiting gurus sure think so. Just ask Tom Lemming, who invited Lunt to the new Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl, scheduled for Jan. 3 at Phoenix's Chase Field.
"I think he's as good as any quarterback in the country," Lemming said. "He's going to keep getting better once he puts on another 20, 30 pounds, which he will. He's got real good arm strength. He's got the instincts."
The school of 685 doesn't have any room for egos. That isn't a problem for Wes Lunt.
"I think it all starts with the family," Rochester principal Dennis Canny said. "And Wes comes from a terrific family. They're a family that grew up in Rochester."
He's quiet and hard-working. He's a good student (3.5 GPA) and stays out of trouble. He likes to hang out with his buddies, but you won't likely see him playing video games.
"Obviously, he's gifted athletically," Canny said. "But we all know athletes who have the talent and don't put forth the effort. He's not one. You'll see him out here in the summertime, he's out there working with a couple receivers on patterns."
Yes, he's got a car, but it isn't a Porsche or Mercedes. Try a 2005 Ford Explorer. The tall guy needs a tall car.
"I'm just a normal kid," Lunt said. "I don't want any special attention."
Growing up in the Springfield suburb, Lunt likes the low-key life. And there's plenty of that in Rochester, which doesn't have a McDonald's but does have a Subway. Lunt's dad, Andy, runs the Village Market. His office is lined with photos of his sons playing football. There's one with Wes and his future coach, Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy.
"It's a great community and they've embraced him," Andy Lunt said. "They embrace Rochester football as much as anything else."
The small-town feel of Stillwater, Okla. (population: not many), drew Lunt toward the school.
"It's just a college town and everything's focused around the university," Lunt said.
They started playing football at Rochester in 1996. It didn't take the school long to win. Led by future Champaign Central coach Dave Jacobs, the Rockets went to the playoffs for the first time in 2000. They made it four more years in a row before Jacobs turned the team over to Leonard.
In Leonard's first three years, the Rockets got beat in the first round of the playoffs each time. In 2009, Rochester broke through, reaching the Class 4A semifinals before losing by a point to Metamora. That was Robinson's senior year.
With a loaded senior class and a junior quarterback drawing major college attention, the Rockets figured to have a successful 2010. They were close to perfect, finishing 14-0 to win the Class 4A state title.
In the five playoff games, Rochester outscored its opponents 199-44. Only Quincy Notre Dame stayed closer than 17.
"That was a dream team," Leonard said. "We expected to be state champs."
But 2011, even with Oklahoma State-bound Lunt firing passes, was supposed to be a rebuilding year.
"We were picked fifth in the conference," Leonard said. "And rightfully so."
Then, disaster struck.
Leonard's phone rang in late July, and he couldn't believe what he was hearing. His star quarterback had broken his foot.
"He called me and I said, 'You're kidding, right?' " Leonard said. "We hadn't started practice, so I knew it wasn't from football. He's not the joking type, so I thought, 'Someone's really putting him up to this or he's really hurt.' "
Lunt was at a Springfield workout facility, doing box jumps, when he landed wrong on his right foot.
"Just terrible luck," Leonard said.
"I heard it pop," Lunt said.
At first, Leonard and Lunt thought he would be back by the start of the regular season. Instead, the injury required surgery, costing Lunt part of his senior season.
A couple days after the surgery, Lunt was in the front yard with his dad, sitting in a chair and playing catch. He couldn't wait to get back on the field.
"My mom's got pictures because she thought it was hilarious," Lunt said.
The Rockets survived the four games without Lunt. Junior Austin Green, who will be the starter next season, went 3-1 and threw for 1,400 yards. The only loss was 42-18 against Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin. That's the team coached by legend Ken Leonard, Derek's dad.
Once he returned to the field, Lunt didn't wait long to work his arm. Against Springfield, he threw for a state-record 590 yards.
Going into Friday night's title game against Richmond-Burton, Lunt has completed 73 percent of his passes for 3,233 yards and 31 touchdowns. He's been intercepted three times.
Favorite target for Lunt? Easy, Zach Grant. The senior receiver, one of the few returning starters from the 2010 undefeated team, has put up monster numbers.
Grant's got 122 catches for 2,117 yards and 23 touchdowns. When Lunt threw for 590, Grant had 20 catches for 345 yards. Another state record.
"That was such a weird game," Grant said. "You didn't really think about the stats and how many catches you had. We had no idea."
"It's been due to his hard work," Lunt said. "I'm very happy for him."
Lunt and Grant have been friends since grade school. Actually, since preschool.
"In the beginning he didn't play football and I was the quarterback," Grant said.
The relationship has paid off on the field.
"When they're on, it's pretty," Leonard said.
Grant knows where the ball is going to be.
"He's so good that he can put it to where nobody else can catch it," Grant said. "It's special. We'll make eye contact before plays. Everything just kind of clicks. You know it's going to happen. You know he's going to throw it my way."
When it came time to pick a college, Lunt had plenty of options. And even more advice.
"You can't make everyone happy," Lunt said. "You've got to do what's best for you."
Nice-guy Lunt didn't want to announce finalists because he didn't want to make anybody feel bad when he went somewhere else. Among his offers included Illinois, Boston College, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Louisville.
"It's an awesome process that he'll always remember," Will Lunt said. "I know he was happy to get it over."
Wes Lunt credits his family, Leonard and God for helping him make the decision. When he left each school, Lunt was ready to make the call. But his parents, Andy and Jane, had a rule: No decision until at least a week after the visit.
"We would just write down pros and cons," Andy Lunt said. "Ultimately, it was his choice. They were all really good."
Lemming thinks Lunt has moved up among the nation's senior quarterbacks. Not that Lunt is worrying about it. He followed the rest of his class before he picked Oklahoma State. But once he decided on the Cowboys, there wasn't a reason to see where the others were going. He had his school.
Not everyone agreed with the choice. They wanted him to play nearby, like at Illinois.
But Lunt stuck to his commitment. It looks like a better decision each day.
The Cowboys, who lost for the first time Friday at Iowa State, are led by senior quarterback Brandon Weeden. After that, the roster includes Clint Chelf, a junior in 2012, and J.W. Walsh, who will be a redshirt freshman.
"He loved Coach Vic Koenning, who did a great job recruiting him, and he liked Illinois," Leonard said. "It just came down flat out, they had the (Reilly) O'Toole kid coming and they are similar quarterbacks. OSU's situation was just better. If OSU's situation was Illinois' situation, he would have probably been at Illinois."
Lunt, who is considering enrolling in January, has a chance to play early. And that could lead to the ultimate goal: pay for play.
"You just don't know, but he has all the tools," Leonard said. "He reminds me of a Tom Brady kind of player."