As expected, former Oklahoma State quarterback Wes Lunt has made the move to Illinois. His transfer is a significant victory for the maligned Tim Beckman, but now the pressure will continue for the Illini head coach to have a team capable of supplementing what surrounds his new quarterback in 2014.
Before we get to Beckman though, it should be noted that Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy had come under fire for the decisions to severely limit the options Lunt had in terms of transfer options. As we noted previously, Oklahoma State was enforcing a scholarship policy that allows the school to block any transfer for a player to any number of opposing schools. The Cowboys were making use of that option to eliminate up to nearly 40 schools from consideration for Lunt, including every possible destination in the Big 12, SEC and Pac 12. Fortunately, Gundy eventually caved a little and lifted some of those restrictions. Interestingly enough, Illinois was not one of the schools appearing to be off-limits, but perhaps the time thinking so many options were out of play led Lunt to take a harder look at Illinois.
Lunt will be eligible to play for the Illini starting in 2014, as he will have to sit out the 2013 season due to typical NCAA transfer rules. The extra time will actually benefit Lunt as Beckman will have a little extra time to ensure Lunt's future teammates are a little more experienced and prepared in Big Ten play.
Beckman's arrival at Illinois never quite went according to plan. Despite Beckman's positive approach to engaging students and fans, any good will done prior to coaching a single game in Champaign was thrown out quickly as Illinois embarked on 2-10 season. The Illini were ranked 12th in the Big Ten in scoring offense, total offense, 11th in scoring defense and 10th in total defense. Every way you looked, Illinois was a pure disaster of a program that even had some wondering if the school should have held on to Ron Zook. Throw in the fact that Northwestern has become a bit of a media darling and is currently the best team in the state, things have to change rather quickly for Beckman and Illinois.
Being able to add a quality quarterback like Lunt should help Beckman's cause, but he may not be able to avoid a second straight two or three win season if he wants to stick around to be able to work with his new quarterback. With the Big Ten ready to expand to 14 teams in 2014 and the College Football Playoff era ready to take over, the pressure is on for programs to make the right adjustments needed to continue to thrive in the new era of college football. Not too many coaches, regardless of when they are hired, are able to survive back-to-back two-win seasons. This year's schedule is not particularly favorable but if Illinois does not win more than two games it would still be considered a bit of a surprise.
Assuming Beckman does reach the 2014 season, this year will be about setting the stage for when Lunt likely assumes the offense in 2014. The addition of offensive coordinator Bill Cubit should help with some offensive concerns and the Illini played a lot of younger players last year that should hopefully build on that experience. With a decent stable of running backs to help out an OK passing game, the Illini offense should be in better, if not more comfortable shape, if they stay healthy in 2013. And that will then lead to a unit that is more confident in 2014.
A year of improvement all around should also help with recruiting. There should be no reason Illinois should consistently be ranked in the bottom half of the Big Ten in recruiting rankings (8th in conference according to 247 Sports Composite Rankings in 2013, 11th in 2012, currently 10th for 2014), which suggests Beckman is struggling to send a positive message about the program. If Beckman can manage to turn the offense around and sell potential offensive skill players on the idea of playing with Lunt, an Illinois native and previously a four-star prospect, then perhaps he can turn things around and start building up Illinois the way he did Toledo. Beckman has a ceiling that trends to suggest he can build a good team, but not a championship team. But after the last few years in Champaign, that may be just what Illinois is looking for right now.
Is Lunt the most important recruit in Beckman's short time with Illinois? Without a doubt, but it is not enough to save his job just yet.
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