Quarterback Battle: The Illinois Fighting Illini’s Good Problem


The quarterback position in Champaign is up for grabs. A three-way race between Wes Lunt, Aaron Bailey, and Reilly O’Toole will determine the starting signal-caller. In two weeks, spring practices start, and the quarterback battle of 2014 will commence, and in a time where Illini Athletics are hitting rock bottom, a competition for the quarterbacks is one of the best problems you can have.

The past seven years of Illini football have seen two quarterbacks lead the team: Juice Williams and Nathan Scheelhaase, who both had the talent, but were hindered by either the lacking skill of other offensive players or a poor coaching staff.

Nov 3, 2012; Quarterback Wes Lunt (11) still in Oklahoma State orange, which is totally different than Illinois orange. (Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports)

This past season was the first under new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, and no one benefited more from Cubit’s hiring than Scheelhaase, who produced career highs in passing yards (3272), completion percentage (66.7%), touchdowns (21), and QBR (59.5).

The quarterback play was the brightest spot of the overly dismal Illini of 2013. Cubit’s impact on offense may be the pivot point of this team for years to come, but now a new quarterback needs to be found before offensive fireworks can begin again.

The quarterback battle will be the main topic when spring training begins. There hasn’t been a vital depth issue like this in some time at the U of I. A QB contest will provide extra competition and effort among the candidates, who all have a reasonable chance to win the job.

Wes Lunt is the unofficial front-runner right now. He showed flashes of potential during his freshmen year at Oklahoma State after being recruited as a 4-star quarterback from Rochester, Illinois.

A complicated quarterback situation, much like the present-day condition at Illinois, caused Lunt to sit out a year and transfer to his home state. For the most part though, Lunt was the winner of the Okie State quarterback battle (it was injury that lost him the job though), and now his talent’s have improved over a season making him even more capable of winning another starting gig.

The 6-foot-5, 215-pound Lunt is supposed to be the strongest arm to come into Champaign since the days of (at least) Juice Williams.

But Lunt can’t sit too comfortably, for breathing down his shoulder pads will be sophomore Aaron Bailey, a 4-star recruit who won a state championship in Bolingbrook, IL, and is possibly Tim Beckman’s best signing at coach of the Illini.

Bailey got time on the field last season, but the majority of his plays were designed QB runs — see, Bailey is a dual-threat quarterback. Cubit said that Bailey still has some aspects of his game that need improvement like accuracy and vision, but don’t take that the wrong way, Bailey is still talented.

Sep 28, 2013; Illinois Fighting Illini quarterback Aaron Bailey (15) runs the ball during the fourth quarter at Memorial Stadium. (Bradley Leeb-USA TODAY Sports)

I’ve already heard discussion from Illini fans wondering what it would be like to run a dual quarterback system. Imagine Lunt and Bailey sharing the field: Lunt taking most of the regular passing downs, and Bailey switching-in to really mess with opponent game plans, able to run, pass, and catch whenever Cubit desires. There was a dual quarterback system up at Northwestern a few years ago, and it worked to some success for them.

Surely the Illini can do it better.

The final contestant in the quarterback battle is senior Reilly O’Toole, a guy with good ability, but isn’t perceived to be as good as Lunt or Bailey.

Backing up Scheelhaase and learning a new offense year after year have become his specialties, but for the first time in his career he doesn’t have to do either of those.

According to reports, O’Toole is ready to prove why he deserves the starting spot. Cubit continues to say that the quarterback role is not yet decided, so maybe O’Toole has a chance, but it will be a surprise to see him come out as the front-runner after spring practice.

All three quarterback face a similar problem as they try to catch Beckman’s and Cubit’s eyes, plus there aren’t any clear cut wide receivers to throw to on this team. Right now, the receiver depth chart is fairly uncertain but it lacks the talent that the quarterback battle features.

We won’t really know anything before practices begin on March 4th. There will surely be several reports flying around during that time that will try to clarify the winner.

The Orange and Blue Spring Game on April 12th will likely have the two top candidates start the game, but even that doesn’t guarantee a Week 1 start.

Although there are many problems with this team that Beckman and Cubit will need to address, the quarterback situation can be considered a desirable problem. Having too much talent at one spot is a sign that the team can begin to compete again, and frankly, it can’t come soon enough.

What do you think Illini Nation? Who do you think the Illini should start at the QB position in 2014?

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