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August 13, 2012
CHAMPAIGN - Nathan Scheelhaase doesn't take his position for granted.
The 21-year-old Illinois starting quarterback understands the fame (his No. 2 jersey has been on jersey racks the past two years) is fleeting. He knows he'll someday miss the sometimes hum-drum responsibilities, like repeatedly answering repetitive questions from media, after his playing days are over.
The Illinois starting quarterback knows this (people wanting to talk to him, take pictures with him or receive his autograph) won't last forever.
"It's been a blessing to just look back and say it is going into Year 3 of being a quarterback," Scheelhaase said. "It was my dream. I watched my dad (former Iowa cornerback Nate Creer) play in the Big Ten conference when I was little. I watched old games and hear about the tradition in this conference. To think I've been a quarterback for two years, 26 games, it's an awesome feeling. It's a blessing. It's something I definitely feel privileged to just have that."
Scheelhaase's name already litters the Illinois record book. If he stays healthy and holds onto the starting job the next two seasons, he can take the top spot on many lists. He currently ranks sixth on the career total offense yardage list (5,427 yards) and has the chance to pass up the man he succeeded (Juice Williams, 10,594 yards). He's also already the second most prolific running quarterback (1,492 career rushing yards) behind only Williams (2,557 yards).
He's sixth on the career passing yardage list (3,925 yards) and likely will crack the top-five and possibly catch Illinois' all-time passing yardage leader Jack Trudeau (8,725 yards). His 132.7 career pass efficiency rating trails only Tony Eason (133.8).
But two years in the spotlight also means two years under the microscope. While he excelled during Illinois' first 6-0 start since 1951, he struggled as Illinois lost its final six games of the regular season. While Illinois won back-to-back bowl games for the first time in its history with Scheelhaase under center, his former coaching staff was fired. While fans appreciate Scheelhaase's unblemished off-the-field record (last year teammates struggled to come up with one flaw in Scheelhaase), some already have eyes for the backup quarterback, sophomore Reilly O'Toole.
Still QB No. 1
But first-year Illinois head coach Tim Beckman has stood staunchly behind Scheelhaase. Co-offensive coordinator Chris Beatty has let on that there's more of a battle for the backup job between O'Toole and do-everything backup Miles Osei than there is for QB1.
"I wouldn't trade Nate for any quarterback anywhere," Beatty said. "I think he does all the things we ask him to do. I'm really happy with him."
The most often cited critique of Scheelhaase, who has a 61.1 percent career completion percentage, is his lack of NFL arm strength. Both his backups have more zip behind the ball.
"There's never been a throw that I've been afraid to make," Scheelhaase said. "There's never been a throw we've had to take out of the playbook because I can't make it. Honestly, there's not too many 75-yard throws in anybody's playbook that you have to make.
"The biggest thing I've worried about is making sure I'm efficient, making sure I'm hitting the guys I'm supposed to, throwing it to the right guys, make sure we're not turning over the ball. Those are the biggest things you can do. I would rather them talking about arm strength than talking about turning over the ball or running the wrong plays or something crazy like that."
Beatty said he's more concerned with Scheelhaase getting the ball out quicker and preserving his arm throughout the season.
"I think he's done some great things as far as quickening his delivery just a little bit and strengthening his arm," Beatty said. "He's got a little dead arm now because you get that around that seven or 10 days of camp. But he can run. He's one of those guys that translates from the classroom to the field. He can handle a lot more than most people can."
The biggest area Beatty wants Scheelhaase to improve? Crunch time.
Last year, the Illini had realistic chances of winning at least four of its six losses, including a 10-point loss to Ohio State, a seven-point loss to Purdue and a three-point loss to Penn State in back-to-back-to-back weeks.
"Hopefully (Scheelhaase can improve in) just getting us over the hump," Beatty said. "One of the things we kind of put some pressure on is the two-minute situation and being really good and taking care of the ball in those things situationally. Last year he had a great drive against Northwestern at the end of the game, but we have to have him take command in some of these close games because you know all of them are going to be close in the Big Ten.
"For him it's just being able to win close games and help leading us to winning close games. And I think he's going to be able to do that."
Scheelhaase said his focus this offseason has been less on himself and more on aiding his teammates with the offense.
"I think other years I probably just worried a little bit too much about what I was doing, how exactly I was throwing and I how I was doing the run game," Scheelhaase said. |I think I wasn't as focused as I should've been on making sure everybody knows. Because if you have 11 guys out there that understand exactly why you're running a play, exactly what your goals are on each and every play, you got a chance to be more successful.
"You're only as strong as your weakest link, especially on offense. It only takes one guy screwing up a play for the entire play to look like a travesty."
Life after A.J.
The one player Scheelhaase could consistently count on last year is now playing alongside Randy Moss, Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham. After falling two yards short of beating David Williams' single-season receiving yardage record last year, A.J. Jenkins (1,276 yards last year) was selected by the San Francisco 49ers in the first round of the NFL Draft (30th overall pick).
Jenkins was on the receiving end of more than half of Scheelhaase's career yards. Suffice to say, he was Scheelhaase's favorite and most trusted target. When defenses adjusted following a monster first six games from Jenkins with double teams and shifted coverage, Scheelhaase struggled. During the 6-0 start, Scheelhaase completed 80 of 120 passes (66 percent) for 1,238 yards, 10 touchdowns and three interceptions. During the six-game losing streak, Scheelhaase completed 86 of 141 of his attempts (61 percent) for 723 yards, three touchdowns and four interceptions.
While Scheelhaase remained accurate, his efficiency lessened. His yards per attempt ratio during the first six games of the season was 10.32 yards. That ratio was cut by more than half during the final six regular-season games (5.12 yards). Scheelhaase now must adjust to life without Jenkins and without a proven No. 1 target.
"He's a heck of a player. He went first round for a reason," Scheelhaase said of Jenkins. "He was a great player, but I think there's for sure times that I look back at last year and wished that we would have had more guys getting involved. We called a lot of plays his way, and obviously I didn't call any plays last year. But there's for sure guys I wish that had gotten more involved. But I'm looking forward to this offense because there is more going on. I don't think they'll ever be able to lock down one of our players because of all the moving parts we have and the different areas of the field we'll be using and how many different players we'll be using."
The Illini need junior receivers Darius Millines, Spencer Harris and Ryan Lankford to step up, but Scheelhaase also will spray the ball to a foursome of talented tight ends (Jon Davis, Matt LaCosse, Eddie Viliunas and Evan Wilson).And his most talented receiving threat may be Josh Ferguson, a 5-foot-9 redshirt freshman running back who lines up in the backfield and in the slot and rarely drops a pass during practice. It's almost certain that Illinois will use a by-committee approach to make up for the lost receiving yardage.
"I think he's doing a great job of being able to find the right guy," Beatty said. "I always say in our room that I want him to be Jason Kidd. Jason Kidd, he's delivering to everybody: Dirk Nowitzki, whoever, whoever's hot. That's kind of how we want to do, just find the open man."
More than ever, the keys to the offense and team success belong to Scheelhaase. The pressure now lies on him to overcome youth and inexperience throughout the rest of the offense - whether fair or not.
"We get too much credit probably when we're winning, and probably too much credit when we're losing as well," Scheelhaase said. "That comes with the territory. My dad always preached that to me when we were younger.
"If it's good they're going to pat you on the back. If it's bad, they're going to let you know. It's something I've sure learned over the last couple years."
Scheelhaase already has guaranteed himself a spot among the Illinois' most prolific statistical quarterbacks in Illinois history. In the record book , his name is up there among Eason, George, Kittner, Trudeau and Williams. But Scheelhaase doesn't want to be known as just the statistical quarterback. He wants to be known as the winning quarterback, the one who ushered in an era of consistent winning at Illinois.
Fortunately for him - and for Illinois - he has two more years to leave his mark.
"Going into Year 3, it's exciting because you've done some good things and you've done some things you wish you'd done better in the past," Scheelhaase said. "That's the best part. It's halfway but you still have two years left because sometimes quarterbacks only get one year to be that guy, the starting quarterback. I get two more years to build on some of the things I've started and really take it to the top. That's exactly what I'm looking forward to doing: to finish my career and not look back on it with any regrets."
Jeremy Werner is the co-host and Illinois reporter for the "Tay and J Show," which airs weekdays 3-6 p.m. on 93.5, 95.3 ConnectFM in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at www.myconnectfm.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @WernerConnectFM