CHAMPAIGN - I’ve asked Illinois players and the new coaches about the transition from Bill Cubit’s multiple, shotgun-centric, pass-happy spread offense to Garrick McGee’s pro-style, power-run offense.
McGee said the biggest transition is the terminology. Offensive linemen say the biggest change is switching sides due to the quickside and strongside designations.. Quarterback Wes Lunt said his biggest transition is huddling, as well as working more exclusively under center.
But those players and coaches are just 11 practices into the process.
So I went to the one person in the football offices who transitioned to and played in the offense for multiple seasons: Nathan Scheelhaase.
The former Illini quarterback and current Illini staffer -- Scheelhaase doesn’t yet have an official title yet on Smith’s staff -- played in a very similar offense under Paul Petrino, who left older brother Bobby at Arkansas in 2010 to take over Ron Zook’s offense. Paul Petrino’s replacement at Arkansas was McGee, who served as the Arkansas OC for two years before taking the head coaching job at UAB. After that short stint, McGee rejoined Bobby Petrino in Louisville and served as his OC for the last two seasons before joining Lovie Smith at Illinois last month.
“It is interesting going back to it and the terminology being similar,” Scheelhaase said. “First, I know Garrick he believes obviously a lot in that Petrino offense, but he also I think has a lot of ideas from when he was at UAB and stuff when he was running the show. He did do some different stuff, which was cool to see. I think any time you can expand offenses and kind of run more to it, that’s good. The thing I liked about it when I was in it is it is more of an NFL-style offense. It’s cool having NFL guys on staff because it’s easier for the staff to get it, understand the terminology.”
In Paul Petrino's first season at Illinois (2010, the Illini ranked 11th in the FBS in 2010 with 246.1 rushing yards per game with the mobile Scheelhaase running and handing off to Mikel LeShoure. LeShoure set the school’s single-season rushing record (1,697 yards) and earned First-Team All-Big Ten honors -- with the help of a strong offensive line (led by future NFL'ers Jeff Allen and Hugh Thornton) and fullback Jay Prosch.
“I remember Coach (Paul Petrino) always saying, ‘This will prepare you (for the NFL). We’ll use the same terms for coverages, defensive fronts, for plays we’re running in the NFL,’” Scheelhaase said. “You hear Garrick saying a lot referring back to Tom Coughlin. ‘Hey, this is one of the thing’s Tom taught me when I was at Jacksonville working under Tom.’ I think the thing that the thing this offense and the thing you need to have in the Big Ten is a really good run game. I think everyone remembers how special Mikel was when he was in it. Just the shows we had when we didn’t have when we didn’t have an elite runner when Mikel left. It definitely likes to set up the pass by running, set up big shots over the top. Obviously, A.J. (Jenkins) was the guy we were going to back then. The reason those guys are so successful -- a second-round pick by Mikel and a first-round pick for A.J. -- was because it sets you up well to run, run, run and then hit you up with big plays over the top with the pass game. When you have guys who can do that, it’s pretty darn dangerous.”
Even after LeShoure left early for the NFL, the Illini offense remained red hot to start 2011. Only this time, the passing game (a steady diet of Scheelhaase to Jenkins) led the Illini. Illinois averaged 34.7 points during a 6-0 start. But Petrino’s offense became too Jenkins-reliant -- he ended the season with 90 catches for 1,276 yards and eight touchdowns -- and Illinois collapsed, averaging just 9.4 points during a six-game losing streak to end the regular season -- and Zook, Petrino and company were quickly dismissed by then-new athletics director Mike Thomas.
“I think we relied too heavily on A.J., and then when teams figured out ways to take him away and take him out of the game, we didn’t have just enough guys ready,” Scheelhaase said. “We had the guys on the roster, but I think A.J. was used so often early on that everybody else kind of took a back seat. When all of a sudden it was their opportunity, they had never done that before. I think Mikel made things easy because he would make the extra defender that was coming into the box, he’d make that guy miss three out of four times which is rare from a running back standpoint. He was doing that consistently that year before and we just didn’t have that.”
McGee has used multiple types of quarterbacks to run his offense. Mobile quarterbacks (like Louisville’s Lamar Jackson) -- similar to Scheelhaase -- and pocket passers (like Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett or Tyler Wilson), similar to the Illini’s QB1 this season: Wes Lunt.
“In all honesty -- and I feel like I can speak honestly about this -- is this offense, if you look at when they were at Arkansas for example, they had Ryan Mallett, a guy who can throw it all over the field,” Scheelhaase said. “They were able to do some more things. Not to speak poorly of my abilities but my arm and Ryan Mallett’s arm are two totally different players. But, that being said, there is one person for sure who has an arm similar to Ryan Mallett. Fortunately, he’ll be lining up behind center for us."
Scheelhaase transitioned from Paul Petrino’s offense to a failed horizontal spread scheme in 2012 under co-coordinators Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales. After both co-coordinators were let go after one season, Scheelhaase put up his best passing numbers in his one season under Cubit in 2013. Scheelhaase said while the Cubit and McGee offenses have differences, their similarities should make the offensive transition pretty smooth.
“I think the positive about it is both offenses definitely put a lot on the quarterback,” Scheelhaase said. “The quarterbacks are in good positions because they’ve had to think and had to know about defenses and check out of plays. Even though Cubit’s offense was a spread-it-out, throw-it-around, it still put a lot on the quarterback. There was a lot of thinking involved. There was reading routes by receivers who ran routes. Whereas if you are talking about one of those offenses that’s one of those air-raid offenses where you’re talking about just getting to spots on the field. You’re not really running routes, you’re kind of just spreading them out and throwing as fast as you can and not really caring what coverages they’re in or what blitzes they’re bringing. Those are two totally different styles of thought.
“When I feel like Coach Cubit came, I thought I was able to pick up things easy. I’d already been a thinker of the game. I’d already been processing, had to see things, had to understand defenses. Fortunately, for the quarterbacks and the rest of the team -- offensive line, running backs, receivers and tight ends -- those guys had to think the game which helps that transition just of learning things happen faster. The faster that learning process can kind of take its course, the sooner everyone will be able to play fast, play at top speed. You have to have that. If you have guys out there thinking, it doesn’t matter what offense you’re running, you’re not going to be successful.”