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June 20, 2013
Wes Lunt didn't make his announcement on live television or at an assembly at his high school, like many top recruits tend to nowadays. Lunt preferred to make his future known in a more private, family moment.
Yet while Lunt didn't select from a multitude of college caps sitting in front of him at a press conference, he did buy some college merchandise to celebrate his decision.
"I made [my decision] on Father's Day," Lunt said. "I got my dad [Andy] an Illinois jacket and just kind of told my family first, then I called Coach [Tim] Beckman and the staff Monday early morning."
Few would have been surprised if Lunt, who transferred from Oklahoma State after beginning his freshman season as the starting quarterback, had bought his dad a Louisville jacket. The Cardinals, the other finalist for the 6-foot-5 pocket passer, made all the football sense.
The Cardinals are coming off an 11-2 season and a Sugar Bowl win over Florida. The Illini went 2-10 and 0-8 in the Big Ten.
The Cardinals boast a quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater, who likely will be a top-10 pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. Illinois hasn't had a quarterback drafted since 2002 when the Atlanta Falcons selected Kurt Kittner in the fifth round.
The Cardinals coach, Charlie Strong, signed an eight-year, $29.6 million contract extension in January. Beckman is on the hot seat after his first season in Champaign.
Luckily for Beckman and the Illini, other factors weighed more prominently in Lunt's decision.
The OSU experience
Obviously, location helped the Illini in their pursuit of the Rochester, Ill., native. Champaign lies just about 90 miles to the east of Rochester. Louisville is a 325-mile drive from his family and childhood friends.
"I think [my dad] was pretty excited, but I know my mom might be more excited because I'm closer to home," Lunt said.
Beckman's new staff also played a role. The Rochester program had an icy relationship with former Illini coach Ron Zook. Beckman's staff never had a chance to recruit Lunt, who had already committed to Oklahoma State by the time Illinois hired Beckman in December 2011. Unlike Zook, Beckman and first-year offensive coordinator Bill Cubit were able to sell Lunt on staying in state.
But Lunt's experience at Oklahoma State may have been the key reason Lunt moved closer to home. He went to Stillwater, Okla., to play for OSU offensive coordinator Todd Monken. Lunt quickly rose to the starting role as an 18-year-old filling the shoes of 28-year-old and first-round pick Brandon Weeden. But a knee injury and concussion derailed his season - in five starts, Lunt completed 61.8 percent of his passes for 1,108 yards, six touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Then Monken left to become the Southern Miss head coach. In a matter of months, Lunt went from hyped future face of the program to not knowing where he stood on OSU coach Mike Gundy's depth chart.
Louisville had its positives. Lunt just feared that it could've been too similar to Oklahoma State.
"Louisville was a great staff," Lunt said. "Their offensive coordinator Shawn Watson was so good to me throughout the process. I just figured he's going to have a lot of success there this year hopefully if everything goes well. I thought eventually he wanted to be a head coach, and I just kind of didn't want to get stuck in the same situation as I was at OSU. At Illinois, Coach Beckman and Coach Cubit aren't going anywhere. I've always dreamed of playing for Illinois."
Of course, there's always the possibility that Beckman may not be the Illinois coach once Lunt can actually see the field in the fall of 2014 following his sit-out season due to NCAA transfer rules.
Lunt met with Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas during a visit to the UI campus but they talked more about Lunt's desire to pursue a career as an athletic director than about Beckman's job security.
"As far as I know, they're going to be there as long as I am," Lunt said. "That's all we touched on. The program's moving in the right direction, and that's all you can ask for."
Illinois provided Lunt with the comfort that no matter what happens in football - coach leaves, injuries or poor play - he'll be close to his support system in Rochester.
"The experience of Oklahoma State, just knowing that coaches are always trying to get that bigger job and move in head coaching area, which they should, really kind of pushed me toward Illinois for Coach Beckman and he's going to be there but I'll always be closer to home and playing in front of friends and family," Lunt said.
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'Not the savior'
Lunt is the biggest splash in Illinois football recruiting since Zook landed five-star recruits Arrelious Benn and Martez Wilson in 2007. Oh, but how quickly we forget about Beckman's coup from last year: four-star Bolingbrook quarterback Aaron Bailey.
Lunt and Bailey will likely compete for the starting job in 2014. By that time, Lunt might have to take it from Bailey as the freshman may have the chance to unseat three-year starter Nathan Scheelhaase at some point this season. Lunt hasn't talked to Bailey yet but is looking forward to the friendly push.
"Competition only brings out the best in a player, so I'm really looking forward to it," Lunt said.
While Bailey's strengths are speed and athleticism, Lunt is a prototypical pocket passer: tall, accurate and strong-armed. The last time Lunt played at Memorial Stadium, he was hoisting his second straight Class 4A IHSA state championship trophy with his teammates after setting an IHSA state championship game record with 590 passing yards.
Lunt hopes he's wiser after he ran into some bumps (seven interceptions) and bruises (two injuries) in his first collegiate season.
"It's a fast game," Lunt said. "I learned that it's definitely not like high school. It's a lot harder. I wasn't as ready as I thought I was. You go in and you think you're ready but it's a big eye-opener when you get there. You see the players and how hard they work. I was very fortunate to play as a true freshman. Injuries aside, it was a blast."
He also hopes to be stronger by 2014 after sitting out a year.
"It's going to be interesting," Lunt said. "It's something I probably need, just to learn the playbook and to get acclimated with the team and the university and classes and all that stuff. It'll definitely be good for me just to get bigger and stronger and just to get acclimated to the team, so I'm excited about it."
Lunt also hopes to attract more talent to the Illini.
"I just want to just recruit the best players, starting in state and working out," Lunt said. "I know there's a few people around the area that we're looking at. If they ask me to make a phone call, I'd be more than happy to just to push Illinois. We're moving in the right direction. I'm excited to get in-state talent and move outward."
But Lunt doesn't openly accept the title of "savior."
He has big plans with the Illini. But he's not going to make bold declarations and make a big show of his arrival. He'd rather keep it low key and prove it on the field with his dad in the stands, wearing his new Illini jacket.
"I'm not the savior," Lunt said. "I'm just trying to push the program in the right direction. It takes a lot more than just one person. It's going to be a lot of hard work from everybody. I'm looking forward to the challenge."
Jeremy Werner is the co-host and Illinois reporter for the "Tay and J Show," which airs weekdays 3-6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 93.5, 95.3 in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at www.espncu.com. You can contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @WernerESPNCU