Scheelhaase, O’Toole split first-team reps in spring practices

The Illinois football team has versatility on offense with returning quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O’Toole. One gives the Illini a traditional pocket passer, while the other excels in the ground game as a rushing quarterback.

“I mean, I’m more the speed runner,” the 6-foot-4, 220-pound O’Toole joked.

As last season’s starter, Scheelhaase led the team in rushing with 624 yards on 191 carries for six touchdowns, while O’Toole carried the ball 13 times for 47 yards in limited action.

“I’m just kidding,” O’Toole said. “Obviously when you watch us play, we’re completely different types. Nate runs around and makes plays with his feet, and I like to think I can throw the ball. … But at the same time, Nate can throw and I can move a little bit.”

O’Toole has an opportunity to push for more playing time this season. He and Scheelhaase have split reps with the first team in “spring practices”:, but head coach Tim Beckman said the job is currently Scheelhaase’s to lose.

“Nathan deserves it because he’s been the starting quarterback for two years,” Beckman said. “If we had to take a snap today, he’d be the one taking the first snap, but Reilly continues to progress and Nathan does, and Miles (Osei) does also.”

Scheelhaase passed for 2,110 yards, scored 13 touchdowns and threw eight interceptions with a 63.2 completion percentage in his second season as starter.

“Nathan’s played a lot of football,” quarterbacks coach Chris Beatty said. “I told those guys I remember watching them when it was 70-67, or whatever that Michigan score was (67-65 Wolverines win), a couple years ago and thinking, ‘Man, that guy’s just a freshman out there and he’s going with Denard Robinson score for score.’”

Beckman said he hasn’t yet decided how he plans to utilize his quarterbacks during the season. He employed a two-quarterback system at Toledo and could do the same at Illinois.

“I think it helps that me and Nate don’t have any tension or anything,” O’Toole said of splitting time. “We’re good friends, so it’s really easy to cheer him on when he does well and I think vice versa for him.”

O’Toole threw for 270 yards, one touchdown and four inceptions while completing 40 of his 67 pass attempts as a true freshman. He said although his playing time was limited last season, the experience has proved valuable this spring.

“As the season progressed last year, I got more and more comfortable,” O’Toole said. “Not only for me, but I feel like my teammates, they can see that I was somewhat successful in some games. Knowing that I can actually go out there and make plays, they can trust me.”

Beatty said O’Toole has improved as a leader and that he brings a positive energy to the team.

“He’s kind of infectious,” Beatty said. “Those guys, they like his personality. He gets excited. He hit a big ball yesterday and he was chest bumping everything.”

In addition to competing for playing time, Scheelhaase and O’Toole, along with Osei who has also been playing running back, have had to learn a new offense.

Co-offensive coordinators Billy Gonzales and Beatty have implemented their spread offense in spring practices, which Scheelhaase said is considerably different from what the Illini ran last season under former offensive coordinator “Paul Petrino”: Scheelhaase said the new offense emphasizes getting players the ball in space.

“Obviously that is just a different feel for everybody,” he said. “I think guys have seen what it’s been able to do as far as get them chances to make bigger plays and things like that.”

Scheelhaase said the Illini haven’t gotten too far into the intricacies of the system, as Beatty and Gonzales have opted to focus on the basics this spring.

“We need to get a whole lot better,” he said. “We need to learn a whole lot more, just the smaller parts, the fine details of what makes the offense really work. But I think guys can see that, can see the development that we’ve all had as far as what this offense has done.”

With the quarterbacks’ varying strengths and skills, Gonzales believes the Illini are very strong at the position.

“What we’ve realized is, son of a gun, we’ve got three guys that can run the offense extremely well,” he said. “Bottom line is you better be a great leader to play that position, plain and simple. No matter what offense you’re running, you better have great leadership skills.

“And all three guys have stepped up and done a fantastic job so far.”