Missouri is going to throw everything it's got at Illinois rookie quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase Saturday, hoping to sack him as often as possible and disrupt his focus throughout. Some quarterbacks in their first college game would be frightened at the prospect. Scheelhaase appears to be an exception.
"I haven't had any nervous feelings. Trust me, I'm sure when I walk into the Dome Friday afternoon, walking around just looking at it, the butterflies will start moving around. But right now I'm feeling good."
Scheelhaase has a natural self-trust that belies his age and lack of experience.
"I'm confident. I'm more and more confident each and every day. I think the spring helped me out a lot. You walk out there with a new offense, and your head's kind of spinning. This fall is a whole lot better. My head's not spinning as much. Obviously, there's things we're gonna fix each day. But the confidence is night and day."
The quarterback is the acknowledged leader of the offense. Why is it that even fifth year seniors are responding to the leadership of an untried youngster?
"People ask me a lot whether it's hard to be a leader as a redshirt freshman. The key isn't really what I say, it's how the team responds to my actions. I think the way I've worked throughout the spring and summer has gained a lot of respect from the guys. That's why I get that respect in the huddle. They know all the work I'm willing to put in and what I bring to the table."
Scheelhaase understands the work you put in on the practice field and beyond is the key to winning games. He expects Mizzou to challenge him, and he looks forward to it.
"Everybody out here wants to win. Last year and the year before they wanted to win. I think a key we've got to go back now and examine is HOW to win. That's something we've got to focus on.
"How do you win? Preparation. For me and the rest of this offense, preparation and knowing everything you want to do to step up to the plate against an opponent. Knowing our assignments, our alignments, all that stuff.
"Play physical, use great fundamentals. That's when you win ball games. You can't do it for a quarter or two quarters. You've got to do it for all four. These are long practices, and we get tired. But you're gonna get tired in a game, you're gonna get winded. That's when the dog has to come out in you.
"I think the best thing you can do is go out there, look confident and be confident in what you do. We play exciting football, and we play a lot of great teams. So if they look at me as a freshman quarterback, I welcome it."
A big part of Scheelhaase's success so far has been film study. He probably studies harder and longer than anyone on the team.
"My studies and what I do in the film room and practice field help me a lot. Studying your opponent, things like that. Those things helped me through high school, so it's something I felt comfortable with and had over the defense. It's something I'll continue. It can't do anything but help."
When he was recruited, the Kansas City Rockhurst star expected a spread option offense run by Mike Locksley. However, Locksley became head coach at New Mexico and Mike Schultz was hired before his enrollment. After working Schultz's version of the spread option his redshirt year, he is now learning a more pro style offense under new offensive coordinator Paul Petrino. There are big differences, but he's excited about the change.
"I guess the biggest thing, although I don't notice it, is people see us huddling. Only the quarterback is looking at the sideline. I guess that's a huge difference from a fan's perspective. There's a lot in the X's and O's that have changed.
"Really, the difference that has gotten us to where we are today is the intensity level has changed. That's what Coach Petrino brings. That's the kind of guy he is. The fiery attitude he brings gets us all fired up. We love being coached by him, the way he fires us up and gets on us. It's made us better players. We respond to that well."
Petrino brought quarterback coach Jeff Brohm along with him. The former pro quarterback knows his craft and has been a big help also.
"Having Coach Brohm has definitely been great. I've learned from him with each practice, each meeting. He's got a record of coaching guys to play to the best of their ability. I know all the quarterbacks are excited about what he brings to the table."
Scheelhaase has weapons at his disposal at both running back and receiver, so he knows he doesn't have to be a hero every game. But when a play is needed, he must be ready to step to the plate.
"Definitely a key in our offense is to manage the game, take care of the ball, and make the plays when you've got to make them. You're gonna have 4-5 plays in each ball game where you're gonna have a guy open and you'll have a play you need to make. That's when a quarterback has to step up to the challenge."
The 6'-2", 195 pounder has an accurate arm, but he also runs a 4.5 forty yard dash. He's not afraid to use his running ability to compliment his passing.
"If I don't find anyone open in my first 2-3 progressions, I will take off. God gave me legs to run. I might as well use them."
Some have suggested he is more runner than passer since he has only average arm strength.
"I don't think it's true. I don't think I'm afraid to run. I think some quarterbacks stay in the pocket because they don't like running. Sometimes defenses cover and plays break down.
"Coach Brohm says there are gonna be 6-7 plays a game where they will have the perfect coverage to what we call. If you can get 6, 7, 20 even 40 yards on the stuff breaking down and running, then that's not a problem."
He doesn't panic and flush prematurely from the pocket.
"They've never gotten mad at me for pulling one down and running. If I've gone through my progressions and the receivers are covered, I'm running. They have gotten mad at me if I tried to force something in there, try to make a play when it really wasn't there.
"Either go to a checkdown and pass...we've got guys like Mikel (Leshoure), Jason (Ford), all our guys can catch the ball. If you can dump it out to those guys and get yards instead of trying to force a 15 yard comeback in double coverage, it's always a better play. It's really been great working with them."
It seems the more responsibility and pressure applied to him, the better Scheelhaase responds. Instead of fretting over it, he embraces being "the man."
"I think the best part is that it's something I've looked forward to since I played football. When you sit out a year, all of a sudden that part gets taken away from you, the thing you love doing. On every team I've played on, I've kind of been a go-to guy and contributed, all through Little League, high school. You miss that feeling.
"Now that I'm back in that area where I am contributing to the team, it's great. It's been great to walk out there every practice. When Coach Petrino gets on you, it's for a reason.
"Last year when I made a mistake, 'That's all right, he's young, it doesn't really matter too much.' But now when you make mistakes the coaches get on you. They want you to get better. That's the thing I love about it. Whether it's my dad, my coaches or anybody, it's great because there's more emphasis, there's more responsibility put on you. If you're willing to take to that, you have a chance to do great things."
Scheelhaase knows how important the Missouri game is for the Illini's fortunes, but he sees it as no more important than any other on the schedule. He has an amazingly mature approach to the game.
"Everything in the game is gonna happen for a reason. There's gonna be ups and downs. I'm just gonna keep a level head, stay calm and stay focused. That's the biggest thing that I can do.
"We're all definitely looking forward to this game. We're more than excited to get out there and show what this new beginning is all about."