The Illini have rid themselves of annual games with a few of the conference’s ever-constant competitors in the Michigan Wolverines, Ohio State Buckeyes and Penn State Nittany Lions, as well as a current contender in the Michigan State Spartans. While the West division also boasts some established programs, based on the current status of the teams and their history of success, most would agree that the East is a tougher draw now and in the near future. Winning the West will always be just half the battle, but the Fighting Illini at least have an open lane they can bust through now to get in the picture.
Doing so will be all the more likely given the program’s current state on offense.
Though the 2013 football season was hardly a promising display by Illinois, some optimism was born with the team’s gains made under new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit. The former head coach of the Western Michigan Broncos was a revelation for Illinois thanks to various pro-style looks that helped open up QB Nathan Scheelhaase‘s full skill set. Instead of using the dual-threat signal-caller’s legs to pick up yards, Cubit painted them as a decoy useful enough to open the field and get the pigskin out quickly into the arms of receivers.
The emphasis on a short passing game effectively made Scheelhaase the most efficient he ever was passing the ball (66.7 percent) at Illinois with a touchdown/interception rate of 21 to 13. Furthermore, though he attempted the least amount of rushes of any season he spent under center for the Illini, Scheelhaase still picked up the most yards of his career due to the 3,272 he compiled through the air. At the end of the season, the Fighting Illini found themselves sitting second to only the QB-friendly Indiana Hoosiers in passing in the Big 10 despite taking the field with a QB knocked for his deep ball and pigeon-holed as a running QB.
While Scheelhaase’s drastic improvements did not carry over much for Illinois into the win column, there’s no denying the impact Cubit’s changes had on tapping into the QB’s potential — something that he will do all over again now that redshirt sophomore Wes Lunt is now in the fold.
The former Oklahoma State Cowboys‘ true freshman phenom was one of the most buzzed about players on the Illinois team in 2013 despite having to sit out the season due to NCAA transfer rules, with some even hailing him as the savior of the program. The Illinois native had some issues after his early success at OSU, but his first-year performance in the Big 12, along with his 6-foot-5 frame, make him an intriguing prospect to say the least. There’s no saying what Cubit could get out of Lunt with three years of eligibility in his holster, especially after seeing what he did with Scheelhaase in just one. The window of opportunity is wide open.
Yet another feared gunslinger is ready to etch his name in the lore of the wild, wild west.