CHAMPAIGN – If Illinois is stressing anything before Saturday's opener against Youngstown State, it is the need to start fast.
Quarterback Wes Lunt said the Illini can't go in or out of the locker room without getting the message.
"There's videos [playing] right outside the locker room of a drag strip," he said.
A fast start would suit Lunt. The redshirt sophomore will start his first game at Illinois on Saturday, and it comes with great expectations. He's a better passer than Illinois has had in a while.
The fast start is important for the Illini, who are coming off a 4-8 season.
"We didn't do that last year, we did not start fast," coach Tim Beckman said.
Things to watch as Youngstown State (8-4 in 2013) visits Illinois on Saturday:
Lunt's education: For all his talent, Lunt is being asked to do more now as a quarterback than he ever has, Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said. And he hasn't played a game in more than a season. So fans should have some patience, Cubit suggested.
"Really, Wes, if you ask him, at Oklahoma State he wasn't asked to do too much," Cubit said. "This offense, there's so much to go on. ... It's the run checks, it's protections, there's matchups."
Lunt, he said, is going to make mistakes. The upside?
"He doesn't make the same mistake twice."
Homecoming: Lunt grew up in Rochester, just outside Springfield, but hasn't played football in Illinois since 2011. He chose Oklahoma State out of high school and, as anxious Illini fans know all too well, earned the starting spot there as a true freshman before losing it to injury.
His last game in Illinois? The 2011 state high school title game on campus at Memorial Stadium. He set an Illinois record with 590 passing yards and four touchdowns on the way to a win. The low-key Lunt hasn't counted heads yet, but he expects to see a fair number of familiar faces Saturday.
"I know a lot of my family is going to be here," he said. "Yeah, pretty good crowd, I would assume."
Homecoming II: Youngstown State coach Erick Wolford was the offensive line coach at Illinois in 2007-08. He sounded a little sad when he noted that, after Saturday, the Penguins won't be coming back to Illinois in the foreseeable future.
"It's probably going to be the last opportunity we have to play a Big Ten team," he said.
Big Ten teams won't schedule any more FCS schools under a plan announced this year to strengthen their schedules. Youngstown State has played Big Ten teams in three of its last five seasons, losing twice to Michigan State and once to Penn State. But the Penguins have upset one FBS team in that stretch, a 31-17 win at Pitt in 2012.
Running penguins: With sophomore tailback Martin Ruiz back, new starting quarterback Dante Nania won't be asked to perform any miracles, Wolford said.
"Just manage the game, take care of the football and do the things we ask you to do," Wolford said,
That might be because Ruiz averaged 5.7 yards a carry as a freshman. He rushed for 1,094 yards and 15 touchdowns. It also might be because Illinois' run defense was the Big Ten's worst in 2013, giving up 5.6 yards a carry.
"I anticipate them to try and pound the rock, run the ball," Illinois linebacker Mason Monheim said.
Hot seat: Beckman enters the season under pressure to improve. All the talk of need to start fast in the opening game could apply to the season's first few weeks, too. After Youngstown, Western Kentucky, Washington and Texas State, the schedule gets much harder. The Illini start the season with the wagons circled, Lunt said.
"I would say that mentality's pretty true," he said. "Going into this year, we just want to make a statement."