Illini, Scheelhaase prepare for upcoming season and new team roles

With 54 seconds left in the fourth quarter of the Texas Bowl, Nathan Scheelhaase settled under center.

The Illini led Baylor 31-14, just under a minute away from their first postseason victory in more than 10 years.

But instead of kneeling the ball, the redshirt freshman quarterback offered one last reminder of the promise for his sophomore season. Scheelhaase faked a stretch to halfback Troy Pollard, sending the Baylor defense to one side of the field leaving ample running room for Scheelhaase to gallop 55 yards untouched into the end zone.

“Obviously we’re excited about our quarterback,” head coach Ron Zook said at the recent Big Ten Media Day. “I think even though he is only a sophomore, he’s a young man that’s continued to improve not only on the field, but I can’t tell you the way he leads off the field. He’s unbelievable. It’s been fun to watch.”

Illinois lost six players to the NFL this offseason, leaving Scheelhaase as the team’s lone member on the 65-player Maxwell Award watch list for the best collegiate player in the nation. After passing for 1,825 yard last season and running for an Illinois freshman record of 868 rushing yards, he was one of 11 underclassmen on the list.

“When you go out there, you have the respect of everybody — your coaches, your players, they know what to expect from you as a leader,” Scheelhaase said. “You know when you step on the field everybody’s looking to you to get the morale up.”

Scheelhaase progressed as a passer last season as he registered more game experience. Through the first six games Scheehaase had seven interceptions. In the last seven games he threw one interception while passing for 13 of his 17 touchdowns on the season.

“He’s a guy that obviously, as I said, you have to remember he’s just a redshirt sophomore, but a guy that’s continued to improve,” Zook said. “He learned to take care of the football and tried hard to do the things our coaches put in place for him to do.”

Last year was not only the redshirt freshman’s first season at the helm, but his offensive coordinator Paul Petrino’s as well. The two have worked closely this offseason to prepare for their sophomore seasons.

“Coach Petrino being the offensive coordinator, coaching receivers, is putting players in places they can be successful,” Zook said. “That’s the thing that’s exciting about coming back the second year. Everybody knows everybody. But they more importantly know the things they do the best.”

Scheelhaase has used the summer to bulk up for the season. He hopes to stay above 200 pounds. He said his current weight is between 203 and 205 pounds.

“It makes a big difference, Scheelhaase said. “I feel good out there, I feel strong. I know I’m going to need that weight in the season, and it makes a difference throwing and running the ball.”

The Illini return 15 of 22 offensive and defensive starters from last year. With the turnover, specifically on defense, the offseason provided time for Scheelhaase and the upperclassmen to mentor the younger replacements.

“The summer was amazing for the team,” senior defensive end Whitney Mercilus said. “We built a little bit of muscle sharpness amongst the team with the plays, built a great family environment between us. We needed to build that chemistry. I think we’re going to be good.”