Illini Not Ready To Name Starting QB, Yet

The Fighting Illini football team went into spring practices with a three-way battle for the starting quarterback job. Since it is such an important position for the offense, and since all three quarterbacks are young and learning a new system, it is better they continue that competition through the summer and fall. So no one has yet been named a starter. Officially, that is.

Jacob Charest, Nathan Scheelhaase and Chandler Whitmer will continue to compete through the summer as they prepare for the 2010 season. Charest will be a redshirt sophomore and has the advantage of playing in four games last year. Scheelhaase is a redshirt freshman and Whitmer a true freshman. All have shown good signs this spring according to Illinois head coach Ron Zook.

"I know the biggest question is at quarterback. One of the biggest things is the competition. All three of those guys have really competed. They're up there in the office on their own. I come back in there Sunday afternoon, and there'll be guys watching tape on their own. I think it's a good thing."

Zook has been asked who the starter will be more than any other question. Whitmer asserted himself in the Spring Game, but he had fallen behind the other two prior to that.

"Everybody wants to know who the starting quarterback is. Obviously, we're gonna have one. It's probably between Nathan and Jacob. They've both done good things. I know this. Chandler Whitmer is a very hard-working guy. He'll be in that film room on his own this summer as well, and he'll make a lot of progress also.

"Some days, I think Nathan is the starter. No question. But you've got to remember Jacob Charest has done some good things as well. Nathan has had a great spring, and he's the one quarterback that loves having his red jersey off. I really believe that."

Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino also praised all three.

"Nathan's had a real good spring. We've found a lot of things he can do. He can run, he's got a quick release and done some good things. Jacob's gotten better as spring's gone on, and Chandler has a real big arm. He's got a good future."

Zook is in no hurry to name a starter. He wants all three to keep competing every day between now and Camp Rantoul.

"Those guys will continue to improve. More than any other position on the football team, it's gonna be imperative all three of those guys continue to improve this summer.

"There's no question in my mind, when we go to Rantoul those guys will be better than on Saturday. I really believe that because they will continue to work, continue to improve. Things will sink in, 'Oh, that's why we're doing that.' They will understand it. So I think that position will continue to improve.

"If they learn the terminology and it becomes second nature to them, which it will, then there'll be less thinking and they're gonna play faster. Even though we aren't practicing again until August, those guys have to continue to watch tape, go through things and learn things. There's no doubt in my mind all three of them will, and the three of them will get better."

Petrino may be more interested in a quick decision than Zook.

"I think Paul would like to have a decision, and he's gonna be pretty big in that decision, and Coach Brohm (Jeff, quarterback coach). But I don't know it's imperative you have a starting quarterback. It's imperative they all continue to improve over the summer like I really believe that they will."

Does he want to keep Missouri guessing?

"I really don't think that matters. They're gonna know. We knew Missouri was gonna have a new quarterback (in 2009), but no one knew he was gonna be on fire. I want the guy who plays against Missouri to be on fire like their guy was. I really don't care who it is."

Petrino is willing to defer to Zook on the timing of the announcement, but he gives the impression he has a preference.

"That's something we've talked about, and we have a pretty good idea in our minds. That's usually the head coach as to when we decide to tell everybody. We haven't decided that."

Since Scheelhaase spent most of the spring with the first unit, he appears to be the front runner. Charest lost confidence early in the spring, throwing interceptions and failing to impress. He made progress as time went on but had a less than memorable final scrimmage. Whitmer is a redshirt candidate if he doesn't take over through the summer, so he has time on his side.

Both Zook and Petrino speak glowingly about Scheelhaase. The 6'-2", 190 pound Kansas City native has outstanding quickness, intelligence and savvy for the job. He is a hard worker, a leader, and a student of the game.

"He's a guy who I don't think you can ever count him out," Zook describes. "He is a very intelligent guy, a very athletic guy.

"One of the things I really love about him is he's really competitive. Even last year when he was on the scout team, the defensive guys got a healthy respect for him. They'd get after it, and he'd throw the ball in their face.

"He doesn't back down. He loves to play the game, he loves to compete. He understands also he's got a long way to go. That's the thing that's exciting."

Because of his speed, Scheelhaase sometimes flushes early from the pocket. Zook feels that is correctable.

"Yeah, I think that's normal. As I listen to Coach Brohm, he's really done a great job of teaching. He knows a lot, and there's a lot of great teaching going on. That's a thing Coach Brohm will get through to him.

"One thing I think Nathan has done this spring, he isn't making the same mistake a lot of times. He's learning from his mistakes. Whatever position you play, you've got to spend a lot of time off the field mentally visualizing and thinking about the things you have to do."

Petrino speaks along similar lines.

"Nathan probably understands the offense a little bit farther right now. He's making a lot of plays right now. The biggest thing is who moves the team the best. Right now, he's probably made more plays this spring. Everyone can always improve and keep getting better, so you always want to keep the competition. All 11 spots are always open."

That may be true, but Petrino continues to describe traits that make Scheelhaase sound like an ideal quarterback prospect.

"He's got a fire and a spirit about him. That's what makes him a great leader. As a redshirt freshman, he might be one of the best leaders we've got on our offense. It's just his personality. Some people have that certain thing about him, and he has it. The way he handles himself every day.

"He works every day, the way he puts in extra time on the offense. The kids rally around him. When the quarterbacks are live, he'll put a shoulder down and run somebody over."

Scheelhaase had the advantage of working with the number one unit, and he frequently passed with the wind at his back. But he clearly won the statistical battle. His passing accuracy was always above 50%, and he put great pressure on the defense with his feet. The threat of containing his rollouts, scrambles and naked reverses kept the defense on its heels.

Zook and Petrino may not announce anything publicly, but things will have to change greatly for anyone besides Scheelhaase to start against Missouri in St. Louis this fall.

"It really doesn't matter to me whether you guys (media) know," Petrino admits. "As long as we know. I think anyone who's out here every day knows. The positions are open, but it's not too hard to go out and play hard. The kids know who's better than who."

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