Illinois quarterback coach Jeff Brohm did an outstanding job developing Nathan Scheelhaase to the point he not only led the Illini to a winning season and Texas Bowl victory over Baylor, but he proved himself a team leader with potential for future improvement. Brohm is looking forward to working with Scheelhaase again in spring practice beginning in late March.
"I think we're excited about it. We've got Nathan coming back after a full year of experience. I think he got better as the year went on and gained a lot of valuable experience that will carry over to this next year.
"He knows exactly what he has to work on to get better at. He's definitely an extremely hard worker and dedicated. He'll do everything he can to be the best he can be."
Brohm knows Scheelhaase needs to be better in the passing game, but the potential is there.
"I think Nathan is obviously an excellent athlete who's a great leader. The kids all look up to him, he's an extremely hard worker. He's gonna do all the little things he can to be a great player.
"He just has to work every day to become the best passer he can be. And developing those quarterback skills of making throws, making reads, being decisive. Being able to sometimes throw it up the field, being able sometimes to throw it outside the numbers.
"Learning to throw on the run as good as he can because he is athletic. There's a lot of things he's got to work on to become the best quarterback he can be."
Brohm and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino adapt their offense to fit the talents of their quarterbacks. This not only maximizes their chances of success with any individual player, it gives them more flexibility in the types of players they recruit. The Illini offense will emphasize Scheelhaase's best assets.
"We're obviously gonna taper the offense around his strengths, the things he's good at. But he's got to become a good thrower, a good decision-maker and the best passer he can be. He's making strides."
The other scholarship quarterback available this spring is Miles Osei. He was Scheelhaase's backup as a true freshman last fall but saw only three plays of action. He has ability but minimal experience.
"I think right now Miles is a quarterback who has talent. He's athletic as well, it's just a matter of giving him as much seasoning as we can get him. He's to play it a lot, and he'll get a better feel for it."
Osei has plenty to work on this spring.
"I think Miles has to be a more consistent passer. He can throw some good balls here and there. He can throw it up the field some. But he's got to be consistent and accurate with his throws.
"The other thing he's got to work on is pocket presence and feel in the pocket. He's got to find some lanes, create some lanes and be able to make throws instead of just feeling pressure and tucking it and running, not ever posing a threat as a passer. He's got to have a better feel of the offense and be accurate with his throws.
"He's got ability, and he's an extremely hard worker too. He's just got to continue to get better at all those things."
Osei has the disadvantage of being only 5'-11" tall. Tall and massive offensive and defensive linemen stand between him and his receivers, restricting his vision. Brohm says Osei must develop compensatory mechanisms to counter his lack of height.
"You have some quarterbacks who are tall, and some who aren't. There are a lot of great quarterbacks now who are not the tallest guys in the world. It's not that it can't be done, but he's got to figure out ways to do that.
"Find lanes, create lanes, be able to anticipate, be accurate and anticipate and make throws before they get there. Most importantly, I think he needs to get a better feel in the pocket.
"I think he can make the throws. He needs to get a little more accurate at it, but he can make the throws. Sometimes it's hard to do that unless you're getting as much live action as you can."
Both Scheelhaase and Osei are athletic, quick runners. Their tendency is to run for yardage at the first sense of defensive pressure. Brohm explains what Illini coaches want their quarterbacks to do in the face of a rush.
"I think you have to be able to feel things going on around you. You can't look at it. By timing and movement and hitches forward in the pocket, you ought to know what progression you're gonna get to.
"Sometimes if it's not there, we want them to go. But not just to go to run. Find a way, move to buy some time for those guys to get open when you're ready.
"When you see a lot of great NFL quarterbacks, even the two in the Super Bowl (Ben) Roethlisberger and (Aaron) Rodgers, they're athletic. Even though Roethlisberger is big, he's tremendous at buying time and allowing guys to get open. When you are athletic, you are able to do that.
"If for some reason there's a huge lane there as you're looking and you just feel it, they need to take off and be runners. We definitely want that option, but the first thing they want to do when they move is to be a passer and be in a passing position until they cross the line of scrimmage."
The lack of quarterback depth is a blessing in one way. It gives Scheelhaase and Osei more opportunity to refine their skills during spring ball.
"Obviously, with just two guys in the spring, those two guys will get a lot of work. Both of them will get a lot of action, a lot of throws and get in a lot of great situations. Those are the two top guys right now. I think they're both improving and working hard and want to be great players.
"It's a little unusual, but even at this time last year we only had three of them, and one of them actually played. The positive is they will both get a lot of action, a lot of reps. I will be standing back there watching, in the middle of it, and that's important as you've got to get those guys ready to go.
"I think they'll take it seriously. I think even up to this point they have. I'm looking forward for them to do great things for us."
In part two of this interview, Brohm talks about entering freshman Reilly O'Toole and his philosophy on preparing young guys for action early in their careers. He also discusses tight end Jon Davis, whom he personally recruited.