Scheelhaase looks to build off successful freshman season

_Editor’s note: Today marks the eighth story in a nine-part Illinois spring football series, which will conclude Thursday with special teams._

Red isn’t Nathan Scheelhaase’s favorite color. At least, not when it comes to the quarterback’s practice jersey.

The sophomore has been withheld from contact throughout the spring, although not by choice.

“I really look forward to this year, running the ball and playing without any red jersey and just getting back to that type of football,” Scheelhaase said.

Scheelhaase said he even tried to convince Illinois head coach Ron Zook to let him go full-contact early in the spring, but with Scheelhaase’s play last season, Zook had no choice but to ignore his starting signal-caller.

Last season, “Scheelhaase”: emerged as one of the most promising young players in the Big Ten by throwing for 1,825 yards and 17 touchdowns while completing 58.7 percent of his passes. He was also effective rushing the ball, adding five more scores on the ground while ranking second on the team with 868 yards.

And while Scheelhaase will continue to impress with his legs, it’s his growth as a passer that has coaches and fans alike excited about the potential of the Illini offense.

“Offensively, there is no question that we have to improve on the passing game, which we will,” Zook said. “I think if you go back and split the season in half and look at the first six games statistically and at the last six games statistically, we were pretty good offensively the last six games.”

“As a redshirt freshman last year, Nathan probably threw more passes than he has thrown combined in his life,” Zook added. “There were some times that we tried to back off of him. You could tell when his arm was a little bit tired. He will be stronger. The quarterbacks and “receivers”: have been working themselves since they have been back here and you can tell they have been working together.”

While Scheelhaase said there is no doubt his arm strength has improved, it has as much to do with his head as it does his arm.

“It’s just knowing the offense and getting more confident in every throw,” Scheelhaase said. “It’s not like I’ve been doing curls in the back room every day before practice to get my arm strong. I think it’s just me having more confidence and being able to put a lot more behind it because I know it’s going to be there.”

Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino acknowledged Scheelhaase’s marked improvement in the game’s mental aspects.

“He made great progress,” Petrino said. “He understood and got to checks … (defensive coordinator) Coach Vic (Koenning) brings all kinds of crazy, and he was getting to all the right checks.

“There’s no doubt he’s made great improvement, he’s just gotta keep it up.”

Along with his responsibilities on the field, Scheelhaase knows his teammates will look to him off the field as well. But, just like everything else the coaches have thrown at him in his time at Illinois, he says he’s ready for that as well.

“I gotta be that guy,” Scheelhaase said. “That’s something that’s important for a quarterback and important for our leaders to get the guys going.”

While fans and coaches are likely to have high standards for Scheelhaase entering next season, nobody is likely to have higher expectations than the quarterback himself.

“I’m big on goal-setting,” Scheelhaase said. “I haven’t really set them for the fall, but I think they’ll be pretty lofty goals. If you don’t set high goals, you’re kinda setting yourself up to be all right with mediocrity. That’s something that I don’t think we wanna be all right with, and that’s something that I’m not all right with personally.”