Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase completed 155 of 264 passes for 1,825 yards and 17 touchdowns with only 8 interceptions as a redshirt freshman last season. He also ran for 868 net yards and 5 more touchdowns. And yet, everyone agrees he can be much better.
Scheelhaase had to learn on the job, no easy task when opposing defenses are throwing everything at you to confuse and limit you. He continued to improve as the 2011 season progressed, completing 18 of 23 passes for 242 yards in the Texas Bowl. And yet, this spring he was even better according to offensive coordinator Paul Petrino.
"His accuracy has really improved. His drop is much better, so he's getting into his reads faster, he's getting the ball out quicker, and he's throwing the ball a lot more accurate.
"His first three days of practice this spring were probably better than any three he had last year. He's got to keep going and keep getting better, but he's improved so far."
Petrino was asked if that meant UI coaches could put more pressure on him to expand the offense past its previous limits.
"We can't put much more pressure on him than we did last year. He does all our checks at the line, the protections at the line. He has about as much responsibility as you can have. He's doing a better job of it, but he had a ton of responsibility already."
Illini head coach Ron Zook saw definite growth this spring.
"I've seen continued improvement. Paul demands so much from him. They want him to be perfect, and he wants to be perfect. He took off where he left off, not only as a player but also as a leader. I feel he's our leader.
"He's more confident. If somebody is going the wrong way or lined up wrong, he doesn't panic but gets them lined up the right way. It's what you would expect him to do in his second year.
"He doesn't take time off. He's been in that notebook since he got back here in January. He knows that the more he does things, the more repetition, the less thinking is involved. And he's so competitive."
There was a steep learning curve for Scheelhaase last season, so it is no wonder it took him awhile to acclimate to major college football. Besides perfecting the offense and reading complex defenses, Zook points out a problem most people never consider.
"The thing about Nathan, Nathan as a redshirt freshman probably threw more passes than he's thrown combined in his life. There were some times we tried to back off him a little bit because you could tell when his arm was awfully tired. He'll be stronger with that."
Scheelhaase marvels at his growth over the past year.
"From last spring to this spring, it's really night and day. And even from last season, especially early in the season, I feel like I'm a lot more confident in what we're doing.
"You have a year under your belt. That makes such a big difference. You can't buy experience, but you can get out there and gain the experience. I sure did. I feel like I have a lot more confidence."
Many quarterback hopefuls succumb to the pressure associated with the position. It overwhelms them, and they lose confidence. For Scheelhaase, the opposite is true. Every challenge is seen as an opportunity.
"I'm excited about the things I need to do for us to be successful this season. I look forward to facing great defenses and them thinking about how they're gonna stop me. You take that responsibility as a quarterback, a guy in your second year at that position.
"It's gonna build more and more with each season I play. This season will be huge. People looking at me and what I'm gonna do. I take it with open arms.
Top receivers A.J. Jenkins and Darius Millines missed the entire spring with injuries, and senior Fred Sykes missed the last half. Again, Scheelhaase sees that as an asset, giving other players the practice time needed to become better players.
"That's something that me and Coach Petrino have been talking about. We're gonna be real deep at wide receiver now. Those guys have no options. They're gonna get reps. They're gonna get the ball. They're gonna have to make plays. And then when we get A.J. and Darius back, we're gonna be a really deep receiver corps."
The top two running backs were also injured this spring, preventing the offense from showing it's entire repertoire. Always the optimist, Scheelhaase found a silver lining.
"Our offense was down about 4-5 guys without J. (Jason) Ford, Troy Pollard, (Zach) Becker and obviously A.J. and Darius on the sidelines. You think about that, and you think about the confidence we're gaining right now and how it will be when we get those guys back in. We can really become a dangerous offense. I think we're all gaining confidence, and that's what spring ball is all about."
Improvements in the Illinois defense have helped the offense improve as well.
"Exactly. Those guys are really challenging us, and they've gotten a lot better. The new sets the linebackers have been learning from Coach Koenning have been huge. Coach Gillhamer coming in with all his knowledge. We're playing against a tough defense every day.
"We know they're scheming against us, and we're scheming against them to try to get better. That's what it's all about. You want that competition every day, the intensity. That's when teams get good. The level of play is raised, and you come up with a solid team."
As one of the team's leaders, the Kansas City product sees the Texas Bowl win as a stepping stone to bigger and better things. The goal is to do at least as well this year as last.
"It's huge for us. It's not just for us within the locker room. I think we're all pretty confident about that. But I think it's important for the fans, to show them we're not gonna be a one-hit-wonder-in-four-years type of team. We want to be there in the thick of things every year.
"With our new conference scheduling, it's gonna give us a chance to play for Big 10 championships. It's gonna be an exciting conference schedule, so we don't want to be on the outside looking in anymore."
The 2011 schedule includes 8 home games. That offers a unique opportunity for the Illini.
"Man oh man, I can't wait. We're really excited. I think it's gonna be great for us to have those first five home games. And I think the fans are loving it. They're thinking September weather. It's not gonna be freezing, you don't have to worry about snow. So hopefully we'll just keep building from there.
"Great teams win home games, that's the bottom line. If you look around the country at the teams that played BCS bowl games, they all did well at home. Obviously, we have a chance to have a great home record this year. It's gonna pay dividends when it comes to the end of the season. We're excited."
But Scheelhaase doesn't want to get ahead of himself. He realizes that success on Saturdays begins with quality practice work.
"Stacking wins is not just from week to week and year to year. But it also includes practices. It's something you work on every day. We want to be able to stack good practices back to back.
"If you want to have good seasons and good games back to back, it starts there. The more you get used to playing winning football, the better your program's gonna be."
The spring went well for Scheelhaase and the team. That is no guarantee of success come fall, but he feels the high intensity spring practices can serve as momentum builders for fall.
"People might not feel like going out hard halfway through the spring. But with us this spring, I was surprised with how everybody came out here in the mornings, sometimes it's a little chilly, and be excited to be out here.
"I think because of the season we had last year, we know the places we can get to. That's what we're focused in on. That intensity should carry through this summer to the fall. I don't see any reason why not."