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Illini coaches like Nathan Scheelhaase’s development

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

CHAMPAIGN — Nathan Scheelhaase was resplendent in his white uniform, standing out from the rest of the offensive unit in the annual
Illinois spring game Saturday.

Behind the strong first-half play of Scheelhaase, the Blue (offense) prevailed over the Orange (defense) 26-21 at Memorial Stadium.

Scheelhaase completed 8 of 15 passes for 87 yards and an interception. He was most impressive at the start, opening the controlled scrimmage by completing 4 of 6 passes for 42 yards in a 16-play, 80-yard touchdown drive.

If the Illini are going to improve on their 7-6 record of last season, Scheelhaase has to become a more dangerous and consistent passing threat in offensive coordinator Paul Petrino’s pro-style system.

As a redshirt freshman last season, Scheelhaase averaged 141 passing yards per game, ranking ninth in the Big Ten. It was largely the electrifying play of departed Mikel Leshoure (1,697 rushing yards) that enabled Illinois to post a school-
record 423 points.

‘‘Night and day,’’ Scheelhaase said of the difference between this spring and last. ‘‘I’m a lot more confident now than last year. Getting that first year under my belt, coming off the bowl victory, I’m much more comfortable in the system and what coach Pet-
rino wants of me.’’

Scheelhaase’s improvement takes on even greater urgency, given the Illini’s uncertainty at running back. Presumptive starter Jason Ford and top backup Troy Pollard were held out for precautionary reasons. Both have struggled with injuries.

Coach Ron Zook praised Scheelhaase’s dedication and stressed his improved preparation, such as watching video and critiquing his own performance.

‘‘He’s only got one speed, and all he cares about is winning,’’ Zook said. ‘‘He’s made tremendous strides in the passing game. .  .  . He threw more passes in the last fourth of [last] season than he did his entire career.’’

Petrino agreed that Scheelhaase has made significant leaps from last season.

‘‘On that first series, he completed several third-and-long passes,’’ Petrino said. ‘‘Last year, we didn’t even put him in those situations; we put Eddie [McGee] in there.’’

Scheelhaase, though, remains a work in progress. He mishandled two snaps out of the shotgun formation and was intercepted by cornerback Miami Thomas.

The wild card at quarterback is Wheaton Warrenville South star Reilly O’Toole, who led the Tigers to consecutive Class 7A state championships the last two seasons. He was one of the many 2011 Illinois recruits in attendance.

‘‘Competition is good, and I just want to work hard and hopefully get a chance to play,’’ O’Toole said.

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