Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase says Illinois has been forced to re-evaluate its goals. | AP
Updated: September 3, 2013 7:46AM
Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has the respect and admiration of his coach, who calls him an “exceptional human being.”
What the fifth-year senior doesn’t have is Tim Beckman’s confidence. As the Illini prepare to open training camp Sunday, Scheelhaase is gearing up to fight for the starting job he has held the last three seasons. Beckman’s support of Scheelhaase’s No. 1 status has been tepid at best.
“Right now, Nathan Scheelhaase is our starting quarterback,” Beckman said last week in Chicago.
“The greatest thing about college football is you get to compete to play in 12, 13 or 14 football games — and that’s the greatest thing that we have going for us — but Nathan Scheelhaase is our starting quarterback right now.”
Also right now: Illinois has the same record as Alabama.
Scheelhaase has more of a dead-fish grip on the job than a stranglehold. He’s like a lot of his Illini teammates in that regard, and like Beckman himself. Everyone in a program coming off a dreadful 2-10 campaign has much to prove.
But so much of what the Illini discover about themselves in August will flow out from the quarterback spot.
“You have to have a quarterback in today’s game, there’s no question about that,” Beckman said. “You just plain have to.”
Beckman and new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit can’t possibly be sure they have one at this point.
Illinois’ offense struggled last season like it never had before under Scheelhaase’s leadership. It was the only unit in the Big Ten that failed to produce 300 yards per game. Scheelhaase averaged a shockingly low 5.5 yards per pass and threw for a measly four touchdowns.
Scheelhaase took a beating from defenses, and his teammates performed poorly around him, but he must shoulder a quarterback’s share of the blame.
Reilly O’Toole was given chance after chance to play his way into the starting lineup and, relatively speaking, had significantly better numbers than Scheelhaase in far fewer snaps. But Beckman’s eyes don’t catch fire when he talks about the two-time state champion from Wheaton-Warrenville South.
“He’s got to be a more sure quarterback in his decision-making,” Beckman said.
O’Toole might be more along the lines of what Cubit’s looking for as the Illini attempt to dramatically ramp up their passing game and the pace at which they play. Easily more of a true pocket passer than Scheelhaase, O’Toole completed 74.7 percent of his throws last season, a terrific number.
But there also have been some bad interceptions, a trend that resurfaced in the spring game when he was picked off — count ’em — four times.
And that leads — as all things seem to for forlorn Illini fans — to Aaron Bailey and Wes Lunt, to date the prize recruits of the Beckman era.
One, Bailey, is set to come aboard as a true freshman. For the record, Beckman’s eyes do catch fire when he describes the 2012 Class 8A state champ from Bolingbrook. Then again, he’s a Beckman recruit; O’Toole and Scheelhaase aren’t. That’s the sort of thing that can tint a coach’s glasses.
Scheelhaase isn’t about to give in. “I’ve kept my focus,” he said. “I expect it to be very spirited with Reilly and with Aaron coming in.”
Unlike the other two, Scheelhaase won’t ever have to tangle directly with Lunt, a transfer from Oklahoma State who can’t play for the Illini until 2014. Many around the college game already assume the former Cowboys starter will take the reins of the offense then.
For now, Lunt’s ineligibility is one of the only things Illini fans can truly bank on.