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June 17, 2013
Despite a furious effort by the new coaching staff to close strong and fill in the holes, the 2012 Illinois football recruiting class ranked 10th in the Big Ten conference and was void of 4-star and 5-star prospects.
Tim Beckman turned back the clock on Monday, landing Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt, a former 4-star quarterback from Rochester (Ill.). Suddenly, Beckman's first signing class looks quite a bit stronger.
Lunt greeted the press at his old high school Monday evening after announcing earlier in the day that he would wear the Orange and Blue. The chance to come home and play for his state's flagship university was a major factor.
"I just have always loved Illinois," Lunt said. "I grew up a huge fan. Just playing in your home state. There's something about that that's special. Great academics. And I really had a great relationship with the coaches."
A high volume of interest came Lunt's way when he decided to transfer out of Stillwater. With his old high school coach serving as a buffer, dozens of coaches from BCS programs were on the phone inquiring about Lunt. Illinois was one of the first to come calling.
"As soon as they could they were on me," Lunt said. "That's fun to see. You want that, especially if you are from Illinois and getting contacted by your state school."
Lunt remained on the down-low while deciding where to continue his college career. While Twitter and Illini message board posters speculated, Lunt and his family methodically made their way through the process.
"I don't have Twitter or Facebook, or any of that stuff," Lunt said. "That was kind of a family decision to keep it quiet. We didn't' want to stir it up any more than it already was. We were trying to collect our thoughts because there was a lot going on."
Lunt threw for 1,108 yards and 6 TD's in his freshman season at Oklahoma State. He brings size and great arm strength to the Illinois offense. The fit with Cubit and the chance to air it out in the passing game were keys for Lunt.
"Of the little I've seen watching the spring highlights, they are a pass-happy offense," Lunt said. "Coach Cubit has done a great job wherever he's been. Just looking at the Western Michigan quarterbacks they threw for a ton of yards."
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Tim Beckman has made pursuing in-state targets the cornerstone of this recruiting strategy. The Illini head coach and his staff make the rounds to dozens of Illinois high schools during the evaluation period building relationship with coaches and players.
Still, competing with the power programs for the top ranked kids in Illinois has been tough sledding. Lunt's high school coach at Rochester, 31 year old Derek Leonard, believes landing Wes Lunt could be just what Beckman needed to open up the gates.
"I think it's going to be huge for central Illinois," Leonard said. "Coach Beckman has done a great job, and that was even before Wes. He has done a great job of sending coaches in the door. He called me before and after our state championship. On the day he had Northwestern he called and congratulated me."
Leonard has high praise for Lunt, who led the Rockets to two consecutive IHSA Class 4A state titles during his junior and senior years. Lunt is eventually an NFL prospect, Leonard says, and a great fit to lead the Illinois spread offensive under new coordinator Bill Cubit.
"The number one thing is he can throw the ball," Leonard said. "In high school, I've never seen a kid who could throw the ball like he can. He's the most accurate thrower I've ever seen throw the football, and he has a strong arm. He's everything you want in Coach Cubit's offense. To get someone of this caliber is huge for Illinois; it's huge for Coach Beckman."
Leonard's father Ken is the head coach at another down-state power, Springfield Sacred Heart Griffin. Their relationship with Illinois has not always been smooth, but the younger Leonard says all that changed when Tim Beckman was hired.
"In the past I didn't think they did a great job, and people said the Leonards didn't' like Illinois," he said. "But you know what, loyalty is a two way street. You have to come in the door and see our kids. And some other places were doing better than (Illinois). But I can't say that anymore."