Quarterback Reilly O'Toole is seeing time as a true freshman for the Illinois football team. He gives two year starter Nathan Scheelhaase a rest at times while gaining the experience necessary to replace him in case of injury.
He entered late first half of the Purdue game last week, alleviating pressure on Scheelhaase. He hit his first four passes for 28 yards. Was he surprised he played?
"Not really. Coach (Paul) Petrino said to be ready. I'm always ready just in case something happened to Nate."
He wasn't ready for what happened on his fifth pass. He made a mistake and threw an interception on a long sideline route. His pass floated against a strong wind, coming up short of its target. Mistakes are the best teachers.
"It for sure was not a pretty strong throw, which doesn't help throwing against the wind. I tried to give him a chance, but when I watched it on tape, I don't know what I was thinking. I should have gone to my check-down.
"I need to concentrate a little more in college. In high school, especially senior year, I had some guys I could count on beating their guys, so you just threw it up there. Right now, it's a little bit different.
"You try to concentrate on your check-downs. You never went to your check-downs in high school, so it's something I've got to get used to. I guess I learn the hard way."
O'Toole led Wheaton Warrenville South to consecutive 7-A state championships. He may eventually have similar success at Illinois, but right now he is a role-player, providing a spark to the team.
"It feels fine. I know whenever my number is called, I'll try to make plays."
Seeing action in five games so far, O'Toole has completed 17 of 22 passes for 116 yards and one touchdown, plus the one interception. He is not a runner like Scheelhaase, but otherwise he is operating with the same play package each week.
"I'm definitely not gonna be running the option, but I'm running the same plays that Nate does when he's in there. I'm just trying to execute."
Most freshmen hit a mental wall halfway through the season, the result of intense, physical activity for longer duration than in high school plus rigorous academic requirements. O'Toole is accustomed to playing extended seasons, so hopefully that won't be a problem for him.
"The coaches do a real good job of keeping us in gear, so it isn't too much of a problem. Practices are really fast-paced, and I like that. They keep you going."
One thing for sure, he gets minimal free time.
"With classes and stuff, it's difficult. But our program does a real good job of emphasizing study hall and getting our work done. That helps out a lot."
The Illini get a bye week after the Penn State game. Is he looking forward to a couple days off?
"I don't know. I'm sure I'll try to get out and run or try to stay in shape and not lose some conditioning. I'm not trying to think too far down the road."
O'Toole says he is getting more comfortable with the offense every day.
"For sure. Each day in practice I try to make them game reps. Practice is huge for me."
The 6'-3" 210 pounder faces continuing uncertainty over playing time, but he prepares the same regardless. Does he expect more playing time in the future?
"We'll see. Right now, we're just concentrating on Penn State. I'm just focusing on practice right now."