Sophomore quarterback O’Toole has much to prove at collegiate level

For a quarterback who was defeated only once as a starter in high school, a 31-point loss was not what Reilly O’Toole had in mind for his first collegiate start. As the signal caller at Wheaton-Warrenville South High School in Wheaton, Ill., O’Toole navigated his team to back-to-back IHSA class 7A championships in 2009 and 2010.

But it was a different story at Arizona State last week when O’Toole completed just 10 passes for just 54 yards, threw a touchdown and an interception, and was sacked four times.

O’Toole, who did receive some playing time as the backup to first-string quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase in 2011, hadn’t been on the football field that much since defeating Glenbard West to cap a perfect senior season with a championship at Memorial Stadium.

“It’s different being out there so early in the game,” O’Toole said Tuesday. “I haven’t played that much in a while. It was fun being back out there, but at the same time, you want to do well.”

Until “Scheelhaase injured his left ankle”: in the Sept. 1 season opener against Western Michigan, it didn’t appear O’Toole was going to see much time on the field in 2012. Unlike former Illini head coach Ron Zook, Tim Beckman made it clear before the season that the quarterback position belonged to Scheelhaase.

Beckman brings a spread offense unlike the pro-style attack Zook used. Scheelhaase’s mobility and experience were central to the decision to stick with him over O’Toole. But even in the victory over Western Michigan, the Illini offense was unimpressive.

O’Toole played in 10 games for the Illini last season, completing nearly 60 percent of his passes, although struggling to find a rhythm at times. A lot has changed since 2011 — including the entire offensive coaching staff — but O’Toole feels like he has made strides since his freshman year.

“I feel like I’m a lot more confident out there,” he said. “I feel a lot more comfortable in the huddle and playing the game. I feel like the game’s slowed down just a little bit. It’s still “moving pretty fast”:, but it’s slowed down.”

O’Toole’s play on the field has not reflected his self-described confidence. Against Arizona State, he showed poise at times but was often flushed out of the pocket with the ball still in his hands. After watching the film, he said he needed to release the ball quicker.

Even though O’Toole is less mobile than Scheelhaase, the coaching staff has been adamant that the game plan does not change with O’Toole at quarterback. The stats reflect this as he carried the ball 12 times against the Sun Devils.

With the possibility that Scheelhaase won’t be 100 percent against Charleston Southern, there’s a chance O’Toole may see significant time Saturday. Against an FCS opponent on a 14-game losing streak, there will be few excuses for a poor performance. And despite last week’s struggles, his teammates are not losing confidence in No. 4.

“It’s tough any time you lose,” wide receiver Ryan Lankford said. “It was tough for me, and I wasn’t quarterback. He did what he could do. It wasn’t a quarterback thing that let the offense down. It was a total offense thing.”

Scheelhaase has had a chance to get to know O’Toole since he arrived last year and says he enjoys competing with him in practice.

O’Toole is a soft-spoken guy, who Scheelhaase says was easy to get along with from the beginning. He admitted he learns as much from O’Toole in practice as O’Toole learns from him. Scheelhaase thinks O’Toole’s confidence is as high as it has ever been, and he didn’t think his backup would be fazed by the debacle at Arizona State.

Scheelhaase compared O’Toole’s game to those of the five NFL rookie

quarterbacks who started in Week One: With the exception of Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, none of them had particularly impressive numbers.

“I remember my first start,” Scheelhaase said. “My first start I threw three interceptions. I didn’t have the day I wanted to have, for sure.”

Scheelhaase’s first start was a 23-13 loss to Missouri in St. Louis. He was a four-star recruit coming out of high school, according to He had started 27 straight games for Illinois until last week.

Although not as highly touted as Scheelhaase, O’Toole was seen with more of a pocket presence at the quarterback position and a proven winner.

His abilities will be tested in the coming weeks, especially if Scheelhaase’s injury lingers. Unlike high school, O’Toole’s first loss at Illinois likely won’t be his last.

_Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @sean_hammond._