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Scheelhaase makes statement with arm during Illini scrimmage

University Illinois NCAA college football quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase (2) Wes Lunt (12) AarBailey (15) look during first day  training

University of Illinois NCAA college football quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase (2), Wes Lunt (12), and Aaron Bailey (15) look on during the first day of training camp at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill., on Monday, Aug. 5, 2013. (AP Photo/The News-Gazet

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Updated: August 12, 2013 10:36PM

RANTOUL, Ill. — Fans and media gathered here Monday night for Illinois’ first scrimmage of training camp, with no question what they came to see: a three-way quarterback battle begin to play out in earnest.

Most of the anticipation centered on the first extended live look at freshman Aaron Bailey, the star of coach Tim Beckman’s latest recruiting class. There also was much interest in how junior Reilly O’Toole, the closest thing the 2013 Illini have to a true pocket passer, would perform in first-year offensive coordinator Bill Cubit’s high-charged system.

O’Toole struggled mightily. Bailey was tremendous, igniting serious hope for the future.

But the quarterback Illini fans love to take for granted, incumbent starter Nathan Scheelhaase, made the loudest statement of all. The fifth-year senior delivered two heaping fistfuls of “I’m the guy.”

There was one play that will go down in Illini scrimmage lore, if there is such a thing.

After Bailey threw three consecutive touchdown passes working with the third-team offense against the third-team defense, the field was abuzz. On trotted Scheelhaase, the ball having been placed at his 3-yard line. Facing a defense filled with starters and key reserves, Scheelhaase dropped back on the first play, planted his feet and launched a deep ball that Ryan Lankford hauled in and took home for a 97-yard score.

“It felt good because he [caught] it,” Scheelhaase said, downplaying the moment when he likely cemented his No. 1 status.

But there were several such worthy moments. Cubit has implored Scheelhaase, a passer with modest arm strength who has often shied from taking downfield shots, to take more risks.

“Test your limitations,” Cubit has told Scheelhaase countless times since the start of spring practices. On this night, Scheelhaase connected on three perfectly thrown passes far down the field.

“That’s what I needed to see,” Cubit said.

Scheelhaase changed plays at the line of scrimmage, barked at young receivers who were out of position and, on a double-reverse that Lankford ran in for a score, delivered the critical block.

Well, “critical” might be the wrong word; the touchdown was called back on a penalty.

“I don’t care if it was called back — he sprang me for a touchdown,” Lankford said.

The messages from Illinois’ coaches regarding the quarterback situation have been a tad confusing. Beckman has repeatedly said Scheelhaase is the starter, but he has qualified that each time by calling it an open competition that will remain open all season.

After the sun set on a field with no lights here, with a gentle rain falling, Cubit looked as though a weight had come off his shoulders.

“Nate has gotten better, hasn’t he?” he said. “He had a very good night.”


Twitter: @slgreenberg

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