Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is now operating his third offense at Illinois. Learning new terminology and a new offensive philosophy takes time, especially for quarterbacks since they must know what everyone on offense is doing every play. He feels it gets easier each time he goes through coaching changes.
"It's not that bad. The good part is that defenses don't change, so what you see on the defense is not going to change. It's a little bit of an adjustment, but I feel like once you are on offense #3, you've adjusted enough where you can figure things out.
"I feel like when I first came in; the difference between a high school offense and a college offense was a lot. But now that you've seen different offenses, you're just putting the right names on the things you're doing."
The spring was an important time to install offense. First you memorize it, then you practice it, and then you finally embrace it to where you can operate it in your sleep. All that takes time and a great deal of patience. Scheelhaase feels the installation process is basically complete.
"I think we installed everything we wanted to this spring. Now it's just getting better, getting tempo going, getting more crisp at what we're doing, playing faster as a unit. I think we've got a whole lot that we put in.
"Especially for the offense, it's way different than what we've done before. There might be more that we need to do to get better, but I think we've done a good job with that."
Of course, a few players missed part or all of spring with injuries. For the offense to operate with precision, everyone must know the playbook backward and forward.
"Last year, the guys had already known the offense. The guys that haven't gotten as many reps because of injury or different things, they have to make sure that they learn this because it's different for us now. It's important that they stay on top of their stuff, and that I get on them to make sure they're learning their stuff."
The 6'-2", 195 pounder shared his thoughts on the differences between the new offense and the previous one.
"I think the biggest difference with this offense is space. We try to space the field and get the ball in space. That's a different feel for everybody, and I think it's a big help.
"Guys have been seeing what it's able to do, giving them chances to make bigger plays, things like that. Obviously, we need to get a whole lot better, and we need to learn a lot more. The smaller details, the finer parts of what makes the offense work. But I think the guys can see the development that we've all had."
The offensive line struggled mightily last fall, and two starters graduated. Developing a potent line will be a key to the 2012 season.
"That's as important as it gets. I think we all know the guys in front of them are what's going to make the offense go.
"Having Graham Pocic in the middle, that's a huge help because he's been through a whole lot. He just rolls with whatever is thrown at him. He's a smart guy who is able to adjust to things, and he's able to help the guys who are at the left and right of him."
Coach Tim Beckman required everyone on the line to play with different personnel at various times this spring. This should help create greater depth.
"I think it was good this spring that guys were having to work with different units because it makes us deeper upfront. You lose some guys from last year, and you're a little worried about who's going to step in. But if we have multiple guys who or able to step in, it makes you a whole lot stronger as an offense."
Illini running backs struggled frequently as well last fall, unable to duplicate what predecessor Mikel Leshoure did in 2010. Redshirt freshman Josh Ferguson was a pleasant surprise in the spring according to Scheelhaase.
"So far with Josh, this offense puts him in space. When you have a guy that fast, and you're able to get him in space, it makes things a whole lot easier. It makes your offense a whole lot more dangerous. No defense wants to see him one-on-one with anybody just because of what he can do with the ball in his hands.
"Just to see him step up this spring with that mentality after missing a whole lot of last year and not doing what he probably wished he could have done, has been huge. We know what he can do as far as skills and speed.
"For him, it's going to be learning to be mentally prepared week to week to be a running back in the Big Ten. For him, that's going to be huge. That's something he got better at as spring went on."
All-star receiver A.J. Jenkins graduated, and the remaining receiver corps is depleted both in terms of numbers and quality. Scheelhaase is pondering the addition of starting cornerback Terry Hawthorne to the offense on occasion, something he thought would happen when both were recruited.
"Getting him out there will be a huge help. We all know how talented he is. I used to lobby for him to play offense. We're in the same class, so I used to call him all the time and tell him to come here to play receiver so I could throw to him.
"It may have taken three years, but I guess I finally get the chance, so we'll see. We are definitely low depth-wise there, so it will be nice to get him out there to see what he can do."
Scheelhaase is now working with his second head coach, his third offensive coordinator and third quarterback coach in his fourth year on campus. He is in an ideal position to make comparisons. The new Illini coaching staff has made a favorable impression on him.
"I think the coaches are a lot more advanced than I expected. They know a whole lot. Especially on the offensive side, when you put a bunch of minds that have been in different circles and worked in different places, it's interesting to see how things develop. How different things from each person's background can work as one. That's one of the coolest things to witness."
If Scheelhaase can play with efficiency and take maximum advantage of his playmakers, the Illini offense could be potent in 2012.