Illini to rely on QB Scheelhaase
All three left early and were drafted into the NFL.
Much of the focus is on the void left by Leshoure’s early exit. But the Illini defense lost two key pieces in Liuget, a lineman taken in the first round by the Chargers, and Wilson, now a Saints linebacker.
The way the Illini see things, even without Leshoure an offense that finished the season in fifth gear is likely to be its strength.
“Our offense got better as the season progressed,” coach Ron Zook said told reporters at Big Ten media day. “There’s no reason to think that we’re not going to pick up right where we left off.”
They left off with a seven-game stretch that included four wins, among them the bowl victory over Baylor in the Illini’s first postseason appearance since the 2008 Rose Bowl, and an impressive 42.2 points a game.
At the same time, the defense was giving up 27 points a game, including 38 to a bad Minnesota team in a loss. Even with NFL-caliber talent like Wilson and Liuget, the offense was having to outgun opponents to win.
The team leaned heavily on Leshoure in those seven games—he had just over 1,000 yards and averaged 145 a game.
But Illinois also saw its redshirt freshman quarterback grow from promising to pretty good. Nathan Scheelhaase ran for almost 83 yards a game in that stretch run, completed just shy of 60 percent of his 118 passes for 131.6 yards a game and, best of all, threw 13 touchdown passes and just one interception.
Leshoure’s replacement, senior Jason Ford, has had his moments, and a pair of freshmen backs are expected to push him, but there’s no doubt the rapidly maturing Scheelhaase will be the hub of the offense when Illinois starts its season Sept. 3 against Arkansas State.
“It’s been fun to watch,” Zook said, describing Scheelhaase’s development. “If you look at the first half of the season, he threw seven interceptions; the second half the season, one interception.
“He learned to take care of the football and tried hard to do the things our coaches put in place for him to do.”
Scheelhaase has eagerly taken on the role of offensive leader, on the field and off, and seems at ease with the expectations. Relaxed, even.
Asked by reporters what changes fans would see when the season starts, he casually answered, without a trace of sarcasm, “We have new orange shoes we’re going to wear.”
Scheelhaase will have his top target back, A.J. Jenkins, who caught 56 balls for 746 yards and seven touchdowns. But he’ll miss Leshoure.
Ford has been up and down in his three seasons at Illinois. Last year, he averaged 54 yards a game as Leshoure’s understudy, but he hasn’t been as durable. Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino is already talking about how he expects a pair of freshmen, Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson, to push Ford for playing time.
That likely keeps the ball in Scheelhaase’s hands. A lot.
But if there’s a player on the roster who lights up the eyes of both Zook and Petrino, it’s Scheelhaase.
Early in preseason practice, reporters asked Petrino if anyone stood out to him as someone who’d made significant progress from last season.
“Oh, yeah,” he said with a smile. “Did you see our quarterback out there today? ... He’s completed about 80 percent of his passes. He had a great day out there today.”
The Illini have five straight home games, including dates with South Dakota State and Western Michigan to open the season. That should give them time to fine-tune the offense they’re counting on and figure out how well the defense will hold before they start playing in the new Big Ten Leaders division.
And even two of their three toughest games there—Ohio State and Wisconsin—will be at home.
All that should give Zook and company a shot at equaling or even improving on last season’s 4-4 conference record, and getting back to another bowl. Illinois hasn’t been to back-to-back bowls since 1991 and ’92.
The otherwise humble Scheelhaase thinks Illinois can make it back to the postseason again, and not just any bowl.
“We don’t want to go to (just) any bowl,” he said. “We want to go for a big bowl.”