CHAMPAIGN – The mad scientist has a new science experiment.
That’s how it feels at the University of Illinois now that offensive coordinator Bill Cubit will be spending more time in his quarterback laboratory with Wes Lunt.
Lunt was named Illinois’ starter on Wednesday, cementing a coordinator-quarterback relationship that is ripe with promise.
Cubit says Lunt is “a natural” as a passer. Lunt says Cubit is “an amazing coach. Whenever he’s on your side you feel more comfortable.”
Together they could rip a hole in the Illini record book, rivaling what former coach Mike White and his strong-armed quarterbacks Jack Trudeau and Tony Eason accomplished in the 1980s.
That remains to be seen, but after naming Lunt the starter, Cubit allowed a peek inside his methodology, describing how he builds a quarterback in his system and giving a glimpse of what he sees in store for Lunt.
As we saw with Cubit and Nathan Scheelhaase, who surprised doubters by throwing for 3,272 yards last season, the relationship with his quarterbacks is built largely on mutual trust.
“They have to know I have their back and I know they have my back,” Cubit said. “That’s how quarterbacks are. They have to trust you. When that play goes in they have to believe it’s going to work. If they’re not quite sure, it’s not going to work.
“But that’s why we give them a lot of freedom. If they don’t like it, change it. And make it better. It’s on your shoulders.”
Lunt, Cubit believes, is up to that mental challenge, even if there are a few stumbles.
“Wes is going to have some moments out there,” Cubit said, “but I think his athletic ability and his football knowledge and throwing arm will make up for some of those.
“In our offense every set has three options and sometimes (the first option) is not always the best option. He has to understand where all of his personnel is and it takes a lot. But he has really grown. He has soaked it all in.”
Cubit said he has had “a bunch” of 3,000-yard quarterbacks of different shapes, sizes and skill sets. His system, he said, can be adapted from one quarterback to the next, and he has a different play-calling approach for Lunt than he does for backup QBs Reilly O’Toole and Aaron Bailey.
“Wes is the best I’ve ever had as far as arm strength. But I’ve had some guys who haven’t had as much arm strength and have become really successful. You just tailor it around those type guys. You go with what they can do and you tailor the offense.”
That’s what Cubit did last year with Scheelhaase, whose arm was considered average at best.
Cubit doesn’t belabor the point, but because Illinois’ defense has struggled, he prepares believing he’ll have to outscore opponents.
“We have to move the ball,” he said. “We have to control the football. Some teams do it by the run and we try to control it by the pass with the help of the run.
“And in the scoring zone we have to make those tight throws so we can score touchdowns. We don’t want to kick field goals. That was one of our bigger problems last year.”
Cubit works with all of his quarterbacks on command in the huddle, on speaking with authority and convincing teammates that any play will work.
“In this offense, he’s the coach on the field. We don’t walk over to the sidelines and ask for help. That’s not our deal.
“We teach our guys how to attack defenses, so you’d better have some leadership and confidence out there. You can call a bad play, but if you do it with authority it may be a good play.
“But if you’re back there and you’re not quite sure, everyone else is looking at you thinking you don’t know what you’re doing. That’s not a very good trait.”
There’s a sense that Cubit and Lunt are excited about the journey they are now embarking on together. Here comes the creative play-designer channeling 40 years of offensive wisdom through the 20-year-old body and mind of an athlete Cubit said reminds him of New England Patriots All-Pro Tom Brady.
“When you look back, he’s kind of been brought up to be a quarterback,” Cubit said. “He played for a great high school coach (Rochester’s Derek Leonard). There hasn’t been one time when I’ve looked at his motion and thought about changing it. You don’t even mess with it. That’s how good he is.
“He’s just kind of a natural guy. He just throws it. And it’s so pretty.”