Reilly O'Toole has played in both Illinois games his freshman season. Some in Illini Nation questioned the decision not to redshirt him to save his year of eligibility. He completed one of two passes for four yards and scrambled once for five yards against Arkansas State, so some wondered whether he would see enough action to warrant using him in 2011.
But there are few doubters after O'Toole was a perfect 9 for 9 for 50 yards and a touchdown against South Dakota State. He now appears the heir apparent to Nathan Scheelhaase at quarterback for the Illini, and he needs game experience in case he is needed later in the season.
O'Toole completed an 8-yard touchdown toss to tight end Evan Wilson Saturday on his first play from scrimmage. He minimized his role but was happy to be part of the action.
"It was a lot of fun being in there when a touchdown was scored, even if it wasn't a touchdown pass. It was the first touchdown I was involved with. It was really exciting and nice to celebrate with your teammates coming off the field and knowing you did something pretty well."
Positive experiences help in numerous ways for youngsters maturing into college football players. Confidence makes future success possible.
"I probably gained a little confidence, just like last week I probably lost a little confidence getting my bell rung a little bit. I did better today. I was a little more composed than last time.
"Actually, the first game probably gave me a little confidence being out there for the first time. But this time I gained more confidence, especially as the game went on and I got more stats. Confidence is the biggest thing, and we'll see what happens from here."
O'Toole has long been known for his passing accuracy, and the plays called for him show Illini coaches trust him in the passing game.
"Last game, I was in there for a few plays, and three pass plays were called. So I think it's what I'm here to do. It was nice. The receivers did a really good job of getting open all the time, so it was pretty easy."
O'Toole studied the playbook diligently over the summer. It helped prepare him to adjust quickly to Camp Rantoul and the pace of college practices. The game has been slowing down for him quickly ever since.
"The pace is much faster than high school. It's pretty tough and fast-paced. I'm not used to 300 pounders being faster than me.
"In Rantoul, things started slowing down a little bit, getting used to the playbook. Now I have a really good grasp of it, so it will improve for sure. Right now I'm in a good situation."
The intensity and focus required for each practice was also a new experience for the 6'-3", 210 pounder.
"The practices here are a lot different from high school. Every single rep has to be like a game rep. You want to do your best. Practices now are like games to me. I'm trying to see what defenses are doing and get the playmakers the ball. I think I've improved a lot from the beginning. It's enjoyable, and we're 2-0."
O'Toole led Wheaton Warrenville South to two 7-A state championships. That experience, along with quality coaching, helped make his transition to the college game easier.
"Coach Ron Muhitch did a real good job of getting me prepared, and my quarterback coach really helped me out in looking at defenses. I know defenses are a lot more complex in college, but just getting the basics of knowing what defenses are doing was really good. And playing big games helps; having some pressure on me helped out a lot."
His development has been enhanced further with quality coaching from quarterback coach Jeff Brohm and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino. O'Toole admits surprise at how different the intense Petrino is on the field.
"It's kind of funny. He comes to your house and he's really nice and laid back. You can still tell that winner's attitude he has. He came to visit a couple times.
"When you're on the practice field, you can tell he wants to win. I love playing for him. He's tough, but he makes you better."
There is still plenty O'Toole needs to learn to be an accomplished college quarterback.
"Staying in the playbook and getting used to the speed. I've adjusted pretty well, but I want to make my reads faster and get the ball out quicker.
"Also, trying to be a leader as much as I can. It's tough as a freshman to lead guys that much older than you, but I want to be as confident as I can."
Getting his passes off quicker became even more essential after the Arkansas State game. He was hit hard on a blitz, causing his helmet to fly off and producing a shoulder bruise that required treatment this past week. Illinois coach Ron Zook appreciated his toughness under fire, and he noticed O'Toole is a quick learner.
"He had a hot read last week, and he got hit. He got rid of the ball to the right place, but a little bit slower. (Saturday) he had the safety bearing down on him, and he dumped it off quick. That's guys getting better and doing what they're coached to do."
Zook is excited about O'Toole's future.
"I think with experience, you're gonna see him get better and better. The guy can move around and get out of trouble. He's got a quick release. Coach Brohm has done a great job with him. That's a lot of offense he's got in his head already. That's the good thing."
O'Toole seemed sincere when he said during preseason he would accept either playing time or redshirting. But since he is now playing, he and the Illini both appear ready to benefit.