Illini starting over
Redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is being asked by new offensive coordinator Paul Petrino not to manage the game, not to play within himself, but to win after last year’s disastrous 3-9 season. Even to put the Illini on his back and carry them when necessary.
“I know you hear people say that all the time, manage the game,” Petrino said. “Usually those are, you know, people that try to win on defense, and I’ve never been part of that.”
No pressure, kid—not that Scheelhaase seems to mind.
“Last year I was just fighting for reps,” said Scheelhaase, who was fourth on the quarterback depth chart last season. “Any rep I could get I was thankful for.”
Now, every snap is Scheelhaase’s, and so is the team.
Last fall, the Illini were expected to rebound from 2008’s five-win season. Williams was in his senior year and destined to set the school record for offensive production. Receiver Arrelious Benn was expected to star before heading to the NFL.
The Illini offense struggled early before averaging 35 points over its last five games. But the defense got worse as the year went along, and Illinois was 2-3 in that final stretch.
Petrino, defensive coordinator Vic Koenning and four other new assistant coaches are in Champaign because the men they replaced were fired. After two straight losing seasons, many wanted change at the top, but head coach Ron Zook kept his job.
But they’re all relying on a quarterback who has never played a down of college football. Scheelhaase at least has a good pedigree, winning the Missouri state title his junior year and choosing Illinois over Oklahoma and his home-state Tigers.
Scheelhaase said the new coaches, Petrino in particular, are already making this year’s Illini a very different team.
“It sent shock waves down through our offense, really,” Scheelhaase said. “He coaches us tough, and we like that. We like him to get after us.”
Petrino, Bobby Petrino’s younger brother, came to Champaign from Arkansas, where he was offensive coordinator for his brother’s Razorbacks. They were 8-5 last year, scoring 36 points a game.
Petrino said his offense here won’t be quite what he ran at Arkansas with big-armed quarterback Ryan Mallet. He’s schemed with Scheelhaase’s weaker arm, quick release and speed in mind.
Scheelhaase will have another edge this fall—the strength of the team will line up in the backfield with him. Illinois is deep at running back, with junior Mikel LeShoure back from a 108-carry, 734-yard season that included five touchdowns. Junior Jason Ford (588 yards, 97 carries, 4 TDs) and quick sophomore Justin Green (19 carries, 88 yards, 2 TDs) also are in the mix.
Zook wants more than one go-to guy out of that group. Petrino does, too, with one caveat.
“You have enough guys that they can all play in the game, and then you bring in the hammer in the fourth quarter,” he said.
At 230 pounds, LeShoure is Petrino’s most likely hammer.
Scheelhaase’s receivers are a question mark. So far, junior A.J. Jenkins has been the best, Petrino said.
There are even bigger questions on defense, where Koenning is being asked to do better than the 30 points and 403 yards a game the Illini surrendered last fall with most of the same players.
One exception is Martez Wilson, the linebacker who missed all but last season’s opener with a neck injury that eventually required surgery.
Wilson has been projected as a game-changing player in each of his three seasons at Illinois, and has never quite lived up to that billing.
Koenning needs Wilson and others to have big years.
The new defensive coordinator, who spent 2009 at Kansas State, admits there’s pressure to improve, and to do it fast.
Athletic director Ron Guenther recently said he’s looking for improvement rather than a target number of wins. Most of the new assistants have two-year contracts, so if the Illini struggle and then clean house again the university would have a hefty round of buyouts.
For his part, Zook said he spent a fairly relaxed summer, indulging his passion for water skiing more than ever and feeling more comfortable than usual. He suspects the new staff around him might have something to do with it.
“Our coaching staff—this spring, I noticed it—has done a magnificent job,” Zook said. “They’ve been there and been under the gun, coached in big time games.”
And this year is big for the Illini in the demands for a turnaround.