August 16, 2016

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) Wes Lunt's 2013 decision to transfer to Illinois from Oklahoma State was just the kind of news an Illini team coming off a two-win season needed.

The strong-armed Illinois native had led his high school to two state titles before heading south and becoming the first freshman to start as the Cowboys' quarterback in decades.

Three years later, Lunt's Illini career has included about as many wins as losses, multiple games lost to injury, two head coaches fired in a swirl of turmoil that had nothing to do with the senior quarterback, and a single bowl game appearance. That is far short of what Lunt had in mind when he came home and leaves a lot undone as he starts his final season at Illinois.

''You know, I had high expectations coming in, just wanted to make a bowl game every year,'' Lunt said. ''And not having that last year is the biggest thing.''

But Lunt has the faith of his latest coach, Lovie Smith. And Lunt is still very much on the radars of NFL teams.

''I think he may be one of the most undervalued players in the country this year,'' said Gil Brandt, the longtime NFL talent guru who ranks him among the top three quarterbacks in the Big Ten. ''I think the guy can be just as good as (Iowa quarterback) C.J. Beathard. I think that a lot of (scouts) will be finding their way down to Champaign.''

In a sport often characterized by loud intensity and playing a position where ego and even brash self-confidence are prized, Lunt said his football demeanor has been defined by calm at least since he was in high school in Rochester, a small town just east of Springfield.

There, he caught himself yelling on the field at a friend and teammate - nothing particularly bad, just the player's name. But Lunt says that was enough.

''I was like, `Man, I should not have done that,''' he said. ''I do yell, and I think there's a time and place to do it. You know, I don't like to be seen doing it and look like a lunatic or all crazy.''

His calm has helped at Illinois, where little has gone as planned the past few years.

Lunt spent a season the bench after his transfer. The following year, as he had at Oklahoma State, he lost his job after an injury. That was 2014, when Reilly O'Toole replaced Lunt and led the Illini to a bowl game.

Last season, Lunt was again healthy. But what happened off the field was anything but. The head coach, Tim Beckman, was fired a week before the opening game amid allegations of player mistreatment. And his replacement, Bill Cubit, was fired in March to make way for Smith.

''He's been through a lot,'' Smith said of Lunt. ''Think about playing for four head coaches. He can adjust. We like him being in charge.''

Smith has made a point of saying he's watched very little film of last season's Illini. Given the circumstances, he wanted to give players a chance to prove themselves outside of that turmoil.

But Smith says he has watched film from Illinois' 14-13 comeback win over Nebraska, with Lunt in mind.

''I saw enough on Wes, really, right there,'' Smith said.

Lunt engineered a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown drives and the Illini were, for a moment, 1-0 in the Big Ten.

But Illinois lost six of its next seven. That left Lunt a clear-cut goal for this season, he said. Get to a bowl game.

He'll be trying to get there in a new offense that Smith says will lean on the run and with no proven go-to receivers on the roster. But the offense will be closer to the pro-style offenses that Brandt and others think Lunt might someday lead than Illinois has been running.

Just where Lunt will be a few years out, whether he'll see his name on an NFL roster, the quarterback isn't sure.

''I don't know,'' he said. ''I think a lot of it kind of depends on this year.''


Follow David Mercer on Twitter: (at)davidmercerAP

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