CHAMPAIGN – In 2007 and 2008, fans projecting the Illini's future had no serious concerns about the quarterback position as it would develop this season.
Redshirted D.C. product Eddie McGee – big, strong and mobile – was heir apparent. He had nearly pulled out the 40-34 loss to Missouri (17 of 31 for 257 yards) when Juice Williams was injured early in the 2007 shootout. Called in emergency six weeks later, McGee's long TD pass would have reversed the 10-6 loss at Iowa if the Illini had been properly aligned.
But for all those weeks and months in waiting, McGee's QB dream became a nightmare last October. With Illinois floundering in lopsided losses to Missouri, Ohio State and Penn State, he was promoted to start vs. Michigan State on the basis of (1) Williams' inability to impact those games and (2) McGee's 19-for-30 completion rate up to that time.
Nothing went right Oct. 10. Illinois trailed 14-0 before he completed a pass and, when Spartan safety Danny Fortener returned an interception 45 yards to score shortly after halftime, McGee's days as a quarterback were essentially over. He finished 2 for 11 that day and completed just four passes as a backup in the last seven games. With McGee moving to receiver – he could be a starter there – 2010 attention was turned to Carolinian Jacob Charest, a drop-back passer who saw enough action to complete 28 of 56 passes last season, and Kansas City redshirt Nathan Scheelhaase. That's where it stands going into Saturday's 1 p.m. Orange-Blue game at Memorial Stadium.
If Scheelhaase has the edge, a likelihood since he has almost exclusively directed the No. 1 offense all spring, he can be the exception to the rule. But it is a long-shot gamble because ... check the record, the Big Ten is rough on rookie quarterbacks.
Disregarding transfers Jeff George (Purdue) and Jon Beutjer (Iowa), and older juco products Dave Wilson and Tony Eason, the very best UI newcomers have encountered difficulty. Jack Trudeau, who holds the career passing record of 8,725 yards, threw three passes as a redshirt freshman in 1981. Jason Verduzco completed 16 passes in 1989. Johnny Johnson didn't play at all in his first two years (1991-92). Kurt Kittner, who threw 70 TD passes to set the UI mark, went 72 of 162 with one TD pass in 1998. Williams was an erratic 103 of 261 (39 percent) in 2006.
Quarterbacking is the most complex and demanding task in collegiate team sports. You can roll back 70 years, including the long period when freshmen weren't eligible, and you'll be hard-pressed to find a single Illini quarterback who truly excelled as a first-year collegian.
That's why coach Ron Zook embarks on something between a filibuster and a soliloquy when asked to name his starting quarterback. Sure, we all know it's Scheelhaase. He's talented. But look at the big picture. A former spread-formation QB, he's debuting in a new NFL-style system, the UI's best receivers and 1-2 tight ends gone, the linemen are learning to flip sides, and former guard Graham Pocic is brand new at center. It is an overwhelming assignment with some of the nation's premier defenses waiting on the early schedule. And, if Scheelhaase falters, as every other Illini QB with his non-experience has done, the coach needs Charest to be ready.
"If depends on the day," demures Zook. "Nathan is intelligent and athletic, and he's looked good in the last two scrimmages, but Jacob has done some things just as well. They're probably ahead of Chandler (Whitmer) at this stage. We need all of them to work hard and improve this summer. That's critical. We need the terminology to become second nature to them. We're going to sit down and discuss the summer plan with them."
Though the quarterbacks have been live the last two Saturdays – they seem to relish the contact – Zook is leaning toward putting them in protective jerseys Saturday even though coordinator Paul Petrino would presumably prefer to have them live. Nor was Zook willing to say whether the No. 1 units will compete against each other.
"We haven't decided how we'll line them up," he said. "We'll wait and see how Wednesday's scrimmage turns out."
Discussing personnel, Zook put the "most improved" tag on 220-pound linebacker Aaron Gress, a junior college transfer who excelled on special teams last season. Zook noted further:
– "Pocic is working well at center, and Tyler Sands (the 302-pound sophomore was listed No. 1 a month ago) may be better suited at guard."
– "A.J. Jenkins has matured and is becoming the receiver that we thought he could."
– "Zach Becker has recovered from foot stress fractures this past winter and is playing two positions (tight end and fullback)."
– "Glenn Foster (Chicago Mount Carmel sophomore) is mobile and hard to block, and he and Akeem Spence are showing good progress at defensive tackle."
– "We have a good group for returning punts and kickoffs: Jarred Fayson, Troy Pollard, Jack Ramsey and Terry Hawthorne. Petrino is handling kickoff returns, and Jeff Brohm is in charge of punt returns. I'm not saying much. I like to reserve my opinion on players until the new coaches have a chance to see what they can do."
– "Mikel Leshoure suffered an ankle injury (Saturday), but it is nothing serious."
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.