Illinois’ Nathan Scheelhaase has improved “every aspect of his passing,” according to offensive coordinator Paul Petrino. | Darrell Hoemann~AP
As a freshman, Nathan Scheelhaase had a big second half in 2010. As a sophomore, he’s aiming to help Illinois improve on last year’s 7-6 record. He has done all the offseason work to reach that goal, adding weight, arm strength and a deeper understanding of Paul Petrino’s playbook.
First 6 Final 7
Passing yds/gm 130.2 149.1
TD passes 4 13
Interceptions 7 1
Rushing yds 288 580
Rushing yds/gm 48.0 82.9
Updated: November 4, 2011 9:39AM
Illini basketball great Dee Brown, who played a little quarterback at Proviso East, knows talent. That’s why he wore Nathan Scheelhaase’s No. 2 football jersey at a basketball reunion in Champaign this summer.
‘‘He said, ‘Man, you’re the truth,’ ’’ Scheelhaase said. ‘‘It’s good to get that respect. For him to have a No. 2 jersey was pretty cool. Even though I’m in a prominent position as the quarterback, I’m still star struck by seeing guys like him.’’
Wisconsin running back James White might have been the Big Ten freshman of the year. But Scheelhaase was the most valuable freshman. Without Scheelhaase, who was named Big Ten freshman of the week six times, Illinois probably would have finished in Danville.
Underappreciated. Overlooked. Any way you slice it, Scheelhaase is the biggest reason the Illini, coming off a rout of Baylor in the Texas Bowl, have a chance to put together back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1991-92.
That’s especially true because talented offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, like Scheelhaase, is heading into his second season at the helm. Not only will Scheelhaase be capable of more, everyone around him will have the benefit of being in Petrino’s system for the second year.
‘‘A quarterback being in the second year is real big,’’ Petrino said. ‘‘We put a lot of pressure on our quarterback to make checks at the line of scrimmage in the running game and our protections. Mentally, Nathan is so much sharper, so much more confident. He can go out there and play; he’s not worried about making mistakes. As a result, we can advance [the offensive sets] a lot faster because of Nathan being in his second year.’’
It seems logical to expect Scheelhaase, who threw for 13 of his 17 touchdowns in Illinois’ final seven games last year, to be a bigger passing threat right out of the gate this fall. Then again, he also ran for almost twice as many yards (580) in those final seven games as he did in the first six games (288).
‘‘I want to be more of a winner this year, not more of a thrower,’’ he said. ‘‘I like running the ball. I like throwing the ball. Whatever it takes. I want to win more games than we did last year. If that takes running, throwing, kicking off, running down a kickoff, it doesn’t matter. I want to put our team in the best position I can.’’
Scheelhaase is more ready physically to do the job. He’s up almost 10 pounds from the 195 he started at last year. And he’s confident he’ll keep weight on during the season.
‘‘I lost a lot of weight during the season last year,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m focused on maintaining this year.’’
He’s also a much better thrower, Petrino said.
‘‘His arm strength is really improved. Accuracy, improved. Quick release, improved,’’ Petrino said. ‘‘Every aspect of his passing is improved.’’
Receiver A.J. Jenkins can attest to the new super-Nate.
‘‘I don’t know what Nate was doing,’’ Jenkins said. ‘‘I came back from a break, and he was slinging it. I guess it was the weight room. He definitely got bigger. He has some size to him now. He’s one of those people who likes to work hard.’‘
Where Scheelhaase excels, though, might be in his decision-making and leadership. Even though he was throwing for more yards and touchdowns, only one of his modest eight interceptions came in Illinois’ final seven games.
And his leadership is off the charts according to his teammates and coaches.
‘‘He commands your attention in the huddle,’’ said offensive tackle Jeff Allen. ‘‘He’s such a young guy. It’s amazing to be this far ahead in the leadership game. He has a tremendous amount of respect from all of his teammates on both sides of the ball.’’
Cornerback Tavon Wilson can attest to Nate, the fiery five-star general.
‘‘He don’t let nobody relax,’’ Wilson said, recalling a July workout. ‘‘We were running 100s. Me and Nate always compete against each other. I kind of fell back, and he said, ‘C’mon, what are you doing?’ I’m a senior leader, but he’s not going to let me relax. That’s the type of player I want to be around. I can’t let Nate down. Nate’s going to do everything he can to win, so I have to do everything I can for us to win.’’
A quarterback who leads — and outruns cornerbacks? Nice.
Scheelhaase sounds too good to be true. Even his parents feel that way.
‘‘Don’t give us credit,’’ said his mother, LouAnn Scheelhaase. ‘‘He’s always been that way. I always tell people he makes us try to be better. He’s just a very good, focused, all-around dedicated guy.’’
Scheelhaase’s father, Nate Creer, who was a star defensive back at Iowa in the early 1980s, and mother have shown their commitment by moving from Kansas City to Champaign and finding jobs there.
Illinois has the right quarterback. The coaches know it. Dee Brown knows it. And don’t be surprised if, by the end of this season, the rest of the Big Ten knows it.