Nathan Scheelhaase played like a freshman at times, and the Illinois offense struggled. This was especially true early in the year as he adapted to the rigors of college ball. But for a rookie, he did a remarkable job leading the Illini to a 7-6 record, 4-4 in the Big 10, and a big win over Baylor in the Texas Bowl.
He completed 155 of 264 passes for 1825 yards and 17 touchdowns with just 8 interceptions. And he established a freshman quarterback record for yards gained rushing with 868, scoring 5 touchdowns in the process. Overall, his leadership helped the Illini offense accumulate 5162 yards and score an average of 32.5 points a game.
Illinois head coach Ron Zook had reason to be excited about his young signal caller.
"We're very proud of the way Nathan has progressed. Our coaching staff did a great job of bringing him along as a freshman. We tailored our offense around the things that he can do, that he does well and has confidence with. Every time he took a snap he got better and better.
"I was excited, just like everyone else, to see what Nathan would do. I tried to keep in mind that he was a redshirt-freshman in a new offense. He's a very intelligent guy.
"You knew he was going to be a winner. You knew he was going to lead and do all those things. You weren't exactly sure how he would execute the offense, but we were always able to watch him improve.
"There were some games where he was banged up a bit and no one ever knew it, but he just kept playing and doing the best that he could do. He did a great job, and the exciting thing about Nathan is that he is going to continue to improve."
Scheelhaase spoke with confidence from the beginning of the year. But there is no doubt his understanding of the game and belief in himself improved as he went along. Upon review, he found a lot to like.
"First and foremost, I feel the best about getting to a bowl game. That was one of my goals when I came in here and when I got the starting job. All four years, I want to go to a bowl game. I want the mentality that's the season we're gonna have every year. That's what I'm most proud about."
Each game was a learning experience for him.
"I think in those first games, especially against Michigan State and Missouri where I had a lot of trouble, and I remember the Ohio State game where I threw an interception. There were plays that might have been there, but I was a little late on them.
"I decided to try it out anyway and learned that, as lethal as I am using my legs, it's all right if I'm hesitant. It's an opportunity to go ahead and use my legs. That's where we got a bunch of huge plays.
"I remember that last drive against Northwestern. There were some plays that might have been there, but Coach (Jeff) Brohm told me don't hesitate. If you feel like it's not there, just take off. So I think that's been the biggest thing in minimizing turnovers."
The 2010 season is one filled with memories for Scheelhaase, but it also served as a reminder of things he needs to improve. He is actively involved in those preparations during winter conditioning.
"There's a ton of things I want to work on. You learn so much from a game-to-game standpoint, especially when it's your first year. It's unbelievable where I was at the beginning of the season and where I am now.
"I feel I have the best coaches in the country in Coach (Paul) Petrino and Coach Brohm. There's about 4-5 things Coach Petrino told me to work on every day of this off season. And it's not just on-the-field stuff, it's stuff with the trainers like improving hip flexibility. And obviously throwing and getting better with the young receivers we have.,/P>
"There's so many things that you can do in the off season, and so many things that you learn on how to prepare in a better way. I work hard in whatever I do, but when you go through a season you can get smarter on focusing on the things you want to get better at.
"It's hard to know what will be difficult during a game or during practices until you do that. After you've been through a season and all that preparation, you pretty much are aware about everything. So it kind of gives you a big advantage in the off season, knowing what needs more work."
Scheelhaase and the Illini offense need to improve their passing game. A combination of a strong running game and lack of experience with the passing attack led to fewer completions for the receiver corps. Receivers could have become discouraged, but Scheelhaase says they understood the situation.
"As an offense, we knew our game plan week in and week out. We knew when defenses will try to take away some things, what guys will be open. (A.J.) Jenkins made a lot of great plays for us this season. Some teams will try to take him away, and then the other receivers are more open. I think they understand.
"That goes with everything. The way Mikel (Leshoure) ran this year, obviously he got the ball a lot. And we wanted him to get the ball a lot because we knew when the ball is in his hands we're doing good things with the offense.
"I don't think the other receivers have gotten discouraged. There was a lot of leadership in that room with Eddie (McGee), Jarred (Fayson) and A.J. I knew they wouldn't let anyone get discouraged."
Scheelhaase expects to utilize his receivers more in 2011.
"I look forward to the time I'll spend in the off season, especially with those young guys. Darius (Millines) is a guy who could really have a breakout season for us, with the things he's done and the improvements he's made. And obviously with Ryan (Lankford), he's got speed that is out of this world.
"To be able to utilize those guys, that doesn't happen as much during the season as it does during off season work. Working on timing and repeating it over and over again. And then once the season arrives, everyone is ready to get the ball."
The Illini two-minute offense wasn't always effective. In 13 tries during the regular season, the offense garnered 7 field goals but no touchdowns at the end of halves or games. Scheelhaase expects to improve that with practice also.
"I think the biggest thing, obviously you want to get touchdowns, but you have situations where you don't want to force something and not put any points on the board. Once you get down there where you know you can get points, you still want to make a play, but you want to make sure you're not turning the ball over or doing something stupid that gets you out of field goal range. I think that's been the biggest key.
"I think the plays are there, and we're ready to make them. But if a defense drops into more of a prevent, if we're on the 25 yard line we're not gonna force something."
Practice should make the two-minute offense more efficient with time.
"Definitely. Once you get down there, the biggest thing is somebody has to make a play. It's not that the play calls have got to change, you have to do something spectacular to get the ball in the end zone."
Scheelhaase is a great athlete with a tremendous vertical leap. Fans feared for his safety when he tried to leap over defenders in a game early in the season, and he resisted the temptation afterward. However, he is a playmaker, so don't be surprised if you see an extemporaneous leap at some point in the future.
"As far as the jumping, it's definitely not something that's gone. You will see it before my career is up. It's just I haven't had the right opportunity. I'm definitely not done jumping."
Scheelhaase had perhaps his best Illini game in the Texas Bowl as he completed 18 of 23 passes for 242 yards while gaining 53 yards rushing and one touchdown. He led the offense with poise and precision. Prior to that game, he was asked what game he remembered best about the season. He remembered Northwestern.
"You always play games that define you. I think Wrigley Field was a game like that, when you're backs are against the wall. We came out on top in that game."
Scheelhaase is still young and learning. Getting 15 extra practices for bowl preparations was a big help, and spring ball will provide a similar springboard. If he continues to improve at the same rate, he should be a potent force in the Big 10 for some time to come.