Illinois junior QB Nate Scheelhaase seems like a great fit in new offense
BY HERB GOULD email@example.com August 17, 2012 11:00PM
In this Aug. 6, 2012 photo, Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is seen on the first day of football workouts at the Illini's Camp Rantoul in Rantoul, Ill. Six losses to close the regular season cost coach Ron Zook his job. The Illini beat UCLA in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl to salvage some pride and key players, including Scheelhaase, decided to come back and play for new coach Tim Beckman. Illinois opens the season Sept. 1 against Western Michigan. (AP Photo/The News-Gazette, Darrell Hoemann) MANDATORY CREDIT
Updated: September 20, 2012 10:15AM
Like coaches, quarterbacks probably get too much credit when things are going well and too much blame when they aren’t.
That certainly seems to be the case with Nate Scheelhaase, who was a hero when he threw 10 touchdown passes during Illinois’ 6-0 start last fall and was the subject of muttering when he threw only two more TD passes during Illinois’ 0-6 finish.
With one backup, strong-armed Reilly O’Toole, who was recruited by new coach Tim Beckman, and another backup, jack-of-all-trades Miles Osei, who’s attracting a lot of training-camp attention, some people might be wondering about Scheelhaase’s job security.
They shouldn’t. The junior from Kansas City, Mo., figures to be just what Illinois’ retooling offense needs to steady an uncertain ship. While Beckman is talking about competition for jobs in training camp, Scheelhaase is quietly going about the business of proving he’s the best option. Which he is.
‘‘I like [this offense] a lot,’’ Scheelhaase said. ‘‘The biggest thing is tempo. We don’t huddle anymore. The biggest thing as far as X’s and O’s goes is, [this offense] gets the ball in different areas of the field a whole lot more.
‘‘Last year, we were predictable at times. There were times we weren’t using the whole field. We weren’t using every player. In this offense, on any given play, there’s a chance to use any player in any part of the field. That’ll make us more dangerous in the long run.’’
Dangerous and offense and Illinois are not words likely to be used in the same sentence until Scheelhaase and his teammates prove otherwise.
Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson are the top candidates in a running-back corps that hasn’t been the same since Mikel Leshoure left after 2010. Darius Millines, Ryan Lankford and Spencer Harris head up a modest receiving corps that will move on without A.J. Jenkins, a surprise first-round pick by the San Francisco 49ers.
Then again, after a monster first half, Jenkins not only didn’t catch a TD in Illinois’ last six regular-season games, he scuffled for yardage. Is that on Jenkins, Scheelhaase or stronger opposing defenses? That’s a chicken-and-egg question, but it didn’t help Scheelhaase’s reputation.
What’s important now is that Scheelhaase is intent on getting things done this year.
‘‘This offense is probably better suited for Nate,’’ said Graham Pocic, a key blocker who’s moving from center to guard. ‘‘This offense is a lot more open. You can do a lot of different things in it. Last year, we did a lot under center, a lot of pro-style stuff. Nate can do all the things you need a dual-threat quarterback to do. And he’s a great person and great leader.’’
Scheelhaase is mobile enough. He knows what he can and can’t do throwing the ball. And he’s smart — a quick-study, take-charge leader who was more mature as a freshman than some Big Ten QBs are as seniors.
It’s no wonder analyst Phil Steele ranks him fourth among Big Ten quarterbacks behind Michigan’s Denard Robinson, Ohio State’s Braxton Miller and Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez.
Scheelhaase, though, is only going to be as good as the players around him. For Illinois to have a good year, he’ll need to get the ball to his backs and receivers, plus players such as Osei and tight end Jon Davis, who are going to line up all over the field. And maybe cornerback Terry Hawthorne, who’d look awfully good at receiver.
And then, they’ll need to do something with the ball.
For Scheelhaase — who’s on his fourth offensive scheme at Illinois, counting the coordinator who recruited him — that’s exciting.
‘‘There are a lot of things I’ve been working on,’’ he said. ‘‘Things like making more accurate, more precise spot throws in the short routes. The way we plan to spread the ball around, the way we plan to play fast to get teams off-balance, this offense will bring out the different things I can do. Maybe some things that fans aren’t accustomed to seeing from me. There are a lot of different things this offense offers me. It’ll be exciting for everybody, not only for myself but the whole team.’’