Arrow's pointing up for Scheelhaase & Co.
This won't take into account Illinois' lack of depth on the defensive line, traditionally vulnerble pass coverage or both sides of an uncertain punting game.
But if you analyze the last half of the 2010 football season offensively and take note of returning talent, coordinator Paul Petrino has all the makings. And those who doubted last September that Nathan Scheelhaase had the arm strength to be a quality quarterback are eating crow this spring.
Despite numbing losses to Michigan, Minnesota and Fresno State, the Illini averaged 42 points and 434 yards in the last seven games (including the bowl win against Baylor), and rookie Scheelhaase completed 59 percent of his passes while averaging 101 yards rushing. Those are winning numbers.
Now a redshirt sophomore, Scheelhaase has grown to 200 pounds-plus, is throwing with more authority and shows all the signs of a natural leader.
"He's 100 percent better," Petrino said. "He didn't start to learn the offense until spring practice a year ago. Now he understands better, has a faster release and knows where to throw the ball. One of our main goals is to improve our passing game. We saw this happening in the 15 practices before our bowl game, and Nathan started with 13 straight completions. He has gained a lot of confidence. He is bigger, stronger and faster."
Pieces in place
With former starter Corey Lewis expected back in the fall to join four veterans in the offensive line ... with 250-pounders Jay Prosch and Evan Wilson at fullback and tight end, coming off outstanding freshman years ... with tackle-breaking Jason Ford stepping into Mikel Leshoure's slot ... with senior A.J. Jenkins (56 catches) heading the receiver corps ... Petrino has all the parts in place.
This was evident Saturday when, as Ron Zook noted, it was "a good day for offense and a bad day for defense ... they were gashing us in the line." And it was done without Prosch and Ford, both of whom will be back next week.
When he arrived, Petrino couldn't be sure he had anything. The team had finished 3-9 and the mood was grim. He fired up everyone by talking about "feeding the studs," referring to his receivers. When the receivers are catching the ball, he said, it lifts the entire team.
And it raises a question: With all those pass catchers possessing similar speed and skills, what separates the "gamers" from those who keep running out for passes and never get the ball?
"It comes down to the guys who can gain separation and get open," Petrino said. "The top receivers make plays when the game is on the line. Ryan Lankford is a young man with speed (10.8 seconds in 100 meters as a Florida prep) who can get in and out of his breaks. He's only 171 pounds but he has a great attitude and he'll be outstanding before it's over. We have a lot of young receivers with potential, and they're getting plenty of work with two of our top guys sidelined this spring (Jenkins and Darius Millines)."
The one lingering question about the offense is depth at quarterback. Scheelhaase played through every game last year, carrying the ball 185 times for 868 yards. Lefty Miles Osei is currently the only backup, a job he'll have to hold against the challenge of incoming freshman Reilly O'Toole in Rantoul come August. Since the latter two are college unknowns, there is concern that the dropoff from Scheelhaase might be comparable to what happened to Purdue and Northwestern last season. It is something to worry about, a risk that virtually every college team must sweat out.
Basketball recruiting is always a crap shoot. With college coaches committing scholarships to 13- and 14-year-olds, they are guessing what they'll get three or four years later.
And so it was with Illini Jereme Richmond ... plenty of warnings, multiple suspensions at both levels, erratic behavior, and now he's gone, having never been present for all the games in any of his last four seasons.
He has become the state's Curiosity No. 1 because it isn't appropriate for Weber or the UI to explain the reason for his departure. Turning pro is a natural cover for ... well, he could have returned – he really could have – but he faced a makeup mountain higher than he wanted to climb.
We hear all kinds of rumors but you must understand: (1) If an athlete has a medical problem involving anything from a sprained ankle to cancer, the university employee who reveals that would have some explaining to do, (2) if it is a classroom or attendance problem, it can't be discussed without his permission and (3) if a player fails a drug test, same privacy issues. Speaking is taboo.
And I'd be called on the carpet if I made an accusation along any of these lines without substantiation. What's clear is that Bruce Weber had to use his influence to get Richmond on the NCAA tournament roster in Tulsa, and this case ballooned out of his control.
As for Richmond's NBA chances, he has an undeveloped perimeter shot and doesn't have a definite forward or guard position for a league that demands it. Couple that with his personal baggage — his character flaws will be closely analyzed — and it seems unlikely an NBA franchise would risk its first-round pick (the only ones who get guaranteed contracts). Some experts disagree with that opinion, calling this the weakest draft in memory. We'll see. He needs to mature in a hurry. Up to now, he's been a model citizen only in spurts before tumbling back.
What we have on our hands, in the view of many, is a sport turned ugly. Listen to what noted author John Feinstein says about college basketball:
"Many college coaches call this the 'AAUization' of the game. Stars are coddled from the very beginning; no one tells them they have to play defense, no one teaches them fundamentals, and no one gets on them if they don't play hard. Why? Because if a star gets yelled at by one coach, he goes and finds a new coach.
"That's why it is now common for players to go to three or four high schools and play on a different AAU team every summer. Then they come to college knowing they hold all the cards with their coach. They only have to deal with him for one year, so why put up with him if he makes unreasonable demands such as 'Would you please try on defense?' "
— Be honest now. In that much-criticized title game with UConn, did Butler play poorly, or did the Bulldogs simply SHOOT poorly? Wasn't their defense reasonably sound in permitting 53 points? Didn't they have eight steals and 19 offensive rebounds (that's 27 extra possessions) while limiting turnovers to six? There were some blocked shot but, from my viewpoint, they were missing roughly the same kind of shots they'd been getting against others. But they misfired on 81 percent of them. Some things can't be explained.
– As of Friday, 30 new head basketball coaches joined the collegiate ranks, with another 12 openings — including Miami and UNLV — as yet unfilled. The next interesting number this spring will be the long list of transferring players.
— The Illini are fielding solid lineups in baseball and softball this spring but don't appear to have enough pitching in the long run. This became a concern when softball slinger Monica Perry transferred to Florida State after her sophomore year, and Dan Hartleb's best hurler, Bryan Roberts, underwent Tommy John surgery. Nothing breaks the spirit of a team quicker than the inability to prevent the other guys from scoring. And in softball, it is almost entirely about pitching.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.