Scheelhaase Sets Bar High For 2011 Season

The Fighting Illini football team is excited about the potential of its offense. Now a sophomore, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase leads the team. He is already a running threat, but his passing has improved a great deal also. With better understanding of the offense and more weapons at his disposal, Scheelhaase figures to improve on his effort from 2010.

Nathan Scheelhaase completed 58.7% of his passes for 1825 yards and 17 touchdowns as a redshirt freshman in 2010. He also ran for a net 868 yards and five more touchdowns. As good as that was, the Illinois signal caller expects much more of himself this season.

"Looking at last year, it was our first time with the coaches. We just had 15 practices and had never had a camp with them. There were still a lot of question marks.

"But coming off last year, everybody's comfortable with their coach, everybody's comfortable with our scheme. We're excited about the year to come. We know how well we did last year, and how we could have done things even better. We're gonna take full advantage of that this year."

Without question, Scheelhaase needs to improve his passing. He often left the pocket too early or failed to find secondary receivers. He did some things well but needed experience and practice to become more well-rounded. He feels he is closer to perfecting the position this fall, and quarterback coach Jeff Brohm agrees.

"He's become a better passer. He has a better understanding of the system and the timing of getting balls out and when to pull it back, when to tuck and run and when to squeeze it in there.

"The hole had to be pretty big for him to put it in there. Now, it doesn't have to be quite as big. He needs to keep working on getting it in tight windows, but he's made strides. He just has to keep working and pushing and carrying it over into the games."

Confidence is extremely important for a quarterback, and Scheelhaase feels much more secure in what he's doing this season.

"I think we'll see more passing, just because I think I'm better at it. The receivers feel more confident out there. The line has been protecting better. You obviously wish to run the ball regardless of who's back there. We feel a lot more confident in our passing game."

He shared one aspect of the passing game he's improved since last season.

"There's a lot of things that we do different. I think my quick release stuff is something that we've worked on, and Coach (Paul) Petrino is happy with. I think that spaces out a defense.

"We've got a lot of guys in short areas, and we can space it out. The key for that to work is having a quarterback with a quick release. That's been working well, and it's something that can really help our offense get the defense worrying about everyone on the field. That's probably helped us the most so far."

Of course, he is working on all aspects of his game. No position requires more knowledge or more skills than quarterback. It takes time to master everything.

"I want to be very efficient in the passing game. One of my goals is to be one of the most efficient passers in the country. Also moving the ball down the field, managing the game well and running the ball better.

"I thought I did a good job last year, but there were a lot of areas where I could have gotten us more touchdowns. So running and passing, and then leading. I want to be there to make plays when we need it."

Some Illini fans hope he will run the ball less out of fear of injury. That's not Scheelhaase's style. He is a competitor, so he will put his shoulder down to fight for a first down, and he will use his leaping ability to dive over the pile when necessary. Instead of slowing down, he hopes to use his legs even more in 2011.

"I hope to break more long runs this year. That's something I can definitely add to it. I was a solid runner last year, but personally I thought I could have done a whole lot better. I think you will see a more confident and poised quarterback."

Helping the cause is the many weapons at his disposal. Defenses should be hard-pressed to guess where the next play is going given all the options at receiver and running back. There is an abundance of receivers, tight ends and running backs, including some exciting freshmen.

Running backs Jason Ford, Troy Pollard and freshmen Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson will keep the Illini rushing attack operating at peak efficiency. This in turn will open up more passing lanes. Scheelhaase was asked about the freshmen.

"They're exciting. We're deep at running back now. As many weapons I can have around me, it makes me that much more confident. The young guys look good, and they have good guys to learn from. Jason and Troy have worked with them and helped them a whole lot. It's fun to be out there with the young guys Josh and Donovonn."

He has no doubt they will be great if they dedicate themselves to that goal.

"The sky is the limit. I sometimes think young guys set the bar too low. That's what we've been stressing to those guys, and really to everyone who comes in. Don't set the bar low; you can be great.

"Mikel (Leshoure) could have been great early if he had put in the work earlier in his career. Finally when he did, that's when he had a breakout season last year. Those guys have a chance to be great."

Upon the conclusion of Camp Rantoul, Scheelhaase was asked his biggest eye opener of fall practice.

"I'd say the attitude in general. I think offensively, we had a great mindset throughout camp. We're real proud of our confidence so far.

"That's something you want to have as an offense. You want to be confident you're gonna go down and score every time you get the ball. It's something I really feel good about. We're really reaching for the top."

Of course, Scheelhaase isn't a finished product. Brohm continues to work with him on all aspects of his game.

"He's made great progress. Obviously, his work ethic and the way he goes about his business, his attitude and the energy he brings has carried over to practice. He's gotten better.

"He's still had some ups and downs a little bit. He's got to find ways to be as consistent as he can passing the ball, make plays with his feet whenever it's not there, and then take care of the ball."

Scheelhaase agrees. He is a student of the game who likely studies more film than anyone else on the team. He realizes he and his teammates must continue to improve with the season commencing shortly.

"There's a lot we need to fine tune. You can never think you've arrived as an offense, especially before you've played a game. We have to stay hungry for the success we feel like we can have. And then we've got to do a great job preparing for teams every week.

"If we do that, the sky is definitely the limit. We've got the coaches that can place us in the right positions. If we reciprocate that, we'll be real dangerous."

One reason for Illini optimism is a favorable schedule with 8 home games. Scheelhaase uses his bully pulpit to encourage fans to support the team's efforts. A great season is possible, but everyone including fans must pull together for that common cause.

"That's a big deal for us, and hopefully it's a big deal for our fans. We need them to be alive, to be loud and going nuts. It makes a big difference, especially the first five games, to stay in your own back yard."

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