He left his brother Bobby at Arkansas to try to make a name for himself in the Big Ten. Good call by Paul Petrino. The first-year Illinois offensive coordinator has led his team on a five-game offensive surge. The team is averaging 46.8 points during a 3-2 stretch and is on pace to break the school record for scoring. Head coaching material? What do you think.
Q: How did you fix the Illinois offense?
A: I don't know if I'd say "fixed it." We came in and we worked hard. From Day 1, our No. 1 goal was to become tough. And I think we went out and practiced with great effort and passion every single day. We never panicked. The kids bought in, kept working hard, then they started to see some success. It took off from there.
Q: How much did you look back at last year?
A: Schematically, not a whole lot. But the players, to see what they could do and did well, quite a bit. When I first got here that's the first thing I did.
Q: What stuck out as a strength?
A: Mikel (Leshoure) was one of the biggest things to me. How well he could come to balance in the hole and change directions. That looked to me like a starting point.
Q: Can you fix parking on campus?
A: I don't think so. I really don't know about it.
Q: Where is the offense relative to where you thought it would be?
A: After the six-game mark, we said "Let's start over and re-evaluate our goals. From here on, let's average 40 points a game." Points is the most important thing.
Q: Is there a lot more you want to try in the future?
A: As we keep going on in the offense, we'd like to get where we can execute the passing game and get a lot more big plays that way. That's something we're on right now.
Q: What has Nathan Scheelhaase meant to you in your first year?
A: He's been a hard worker. He takes hard coaching. I probably coach him harder than any of them. I get on him more than any of them and he can take that. When your best player can take that, that makes it easy to get on the other guys.
Q: When did you first know he could be your guy?
A: As spring went on. You saw his personality and his ability to make plays. The first scrimmage, when we let the quarterbacks be live, was when he really showed up.
Q: How much can he improve in the next three seasons?
A: A ton. He's improved a whole bunch as this season has gone on. Quarterbacks and receivers can improve probably more than anyone on the team in the offseason. They can get together and they can work.
Q: Juice Williams and Kurt Kittner, two of the best numbers-wise in school history, struggled as freshman starters. Why didn't Nathan struggle?
A: I think the running game has helped him. The ability to run the ball and hand off to Mikel has helped. The ability to come up with some different schemes where he makes plays running the ball has really helped him. He doesn't always have to be making the perfect pass.
Q: Do you wish he would duck?
A: No. Never. We're not in the NFL. He's in college football. Quarterbacks should get every yard they can.
Q: Mikel Leshoure just gained 330 yards in a game. Did you see that coming?
A: He'd been working hard and he'd had a great week of practice. You kind of felt that game was coming along at some point. He had a lot of games that were good games. The difference in this game was he beat people one-on-one and kept making big play after big play after big play. Jay Prosch had an unbelievable game at fullback. The line played well. The receivers blocked well in the secondary.
Q: The smart offensive coordinator kept giving him the ball.
A: If it's working, you keep doing it. Really, going into the game, we thought we had quite a few plays we were going to take in the passing game. When we were running the ball as well as we were, we just kept doing it.
Q: Have you had a lot of suggestions from fans about plays you should call?
A: You get them, but I probably don't pay a lot of attention to them. Fans have a lot of answers, but they don't sit up here for 16 hours and watch tape.
Q: How soon after your game do you check the Arkansas score?
A: As soon as our game's over. It's kind of like growing up. My whole life I was worried if my dad won, if my brother won, if I won. We always worry about everybody. On the ride home in the car the other day, we listened to it on the radio.
Q: How often do you talk to your brother?
A: We talk every Monday and usually on Thursday. Every Monday at lunch, we go over what scheme they're seeing that week and what scheme we're seeing. We just kind of throw ideas off each other. Monday, it's usually football. Sometimes on Thursday, it will be more about family.
Q: There's a thought out there that you two had a rough patch after you left for Illinois. Is there any truth to that?
A: He wasn't happy that I was leaving. People always want to look for things. He helps me more than anybody right now.
Q: Do you miss Ryan Mallett?
A: Yeah, he's a great kid. I miss all the wideouts too. You coach guys for two years, you always have a spot in your heart for them. He had a great year and I'm happy for him.
Q: Looks like the Razorbacks are going to the BCS. If it works schedule-wise, will you go to the game?
A: I don't know. After our game, I'll probably be out recruiting. I'll watch it.
Q: Is there a guy on the Illinois offense who has progressed maybe more than you would have expected?
A: I would say the true freshman at tight end (Evan Wilson) and the true freshman at fullback (Prosch). Those two have played all year and haven't gotten hurt. As well as those two have played as true freshmen is pretty excellent.
Q: Do you think you will be at Illinois in 2011?
A: I hope to be back. I'm always going to be open to any suggestion or talk of a head coaching job because that's my ultimate goal. You figure out what's best for the family and kind of go from there. I expect to be back unless I'm a head coach somewhere.
Q: How is your knee?
A: It's good. It's getting better. I'd never hurt my knees before. You just grit your teeth and go to work. I did the whole spring recruiting, then got it cut on. I got it done after we finished recruiting.
Q: Does your family like Champaign-Urbana?
A: They do. For the kids, it's hard right at first. Right now, everybody's real happy.
Q: Other than the stadium and your house, have you gotten to see much?
A: Me and the kids like to go to Qdoba quite a bit. More than anything, I've been around the state watching Anne Marie playing softball or Mason soccer.
Q: Do you eat in the press box?
A: No. I'll always have a Coke. If I ever eat something in the press box, somebody better punch me in the mouth.
Q: Do you know when you're on TV?
A: No. One game they kept showing the wrong guy the whole game. I think they were showing Chip (Long).
Q: What do you do at halftime?
A: First, we meet as an offensive staff and talk about what things are working, what things we feel like we need to make adjustments on. Then, we talk about what plays we want to run in the first series coming up. Then, we go in and talk to team. We meet with the whole offense at first, then break into positions. We get quite a bit of time. A lot of times, you're down there before the players are in.
Q: How much do you talk to Ron Zook during the game?
A: He's on the phones with us all the time. His phone switches over to both offense and defense. When offense is up, it's pretty much me and Coach (Jeff) Brohm. We'll talk and Coach Zook will talk whenever he wants. When the defense is up, we all talk. A lot of people think you wait until halftime to make adjustments. That would be way too late. You make adjustments between every series.
Q: What kind of things does Coach Zook say?
A: More than anything, he's positive. Sometimes, he'll say "Get an idea for a play coming up in this situation." He'll ask my opinion of what he thinks we should do in a certain situation.
Q: Who is in your title game?
A: Probably Oregon and Auburn, if they stay undefeated.
Q: You got my vote for the Frank Broyles Award. How did you not make the cut?
A: I've been a finalist before (in 2006). Because I left there, they're not going to make me a finalist. Who were the finalists? I've made it to the semis two or three times. Frank Broyles is a great man.
Q: We've asked the players if they can picture you as a college quarterback. They've all said yes. Can you picture any of your players as a college coach?
A: Oh yeah. There's a few of them. I think Graham (Pocic) wants to be a coach. I could definitely see him being a real good coach. Chris James wants to be a coach. He would be a good coach. Hopefully, you can picture them all that way. You want them to be students of the game.
Q: What's the most important attribute for a coach?
A: Passion. Anyone who loves the game and works hard at it and likes going to practice, they are going to be a good coach.
Q: In a few questions, I'm going to ask you to tell me something people don't know about you. But first, tell me something people don't know about one of the other Illinois coaches.
A: No one knows Coach Brohm threw Jerry Rice's 100th touchdown catch and Terrell Owens' first touchdown catch.
Q: Who is your favorite female entertainer?
A: It would probably be Taylor Swift.
Q: Going to see a Taylor Swift concert with your wife Maya or 500 yards of offense in a win against Fresno State?
A: That's a no-brainer. I think I've been to one concert my whole life. It was a George Strait concert at our stadium in Louisville. We got the tickets for free.
Q: Tell me something people don't know about you.
A: We ate the same meal every day of the week (growing up). Spaghetti on Sunday. Leftover spaghetti on Monday. We had hamburger on Tuesday. On Wednesday, we had some kind of casserole. On Thursday, we had awful bean casserole. I tried to go somewhere else on Thursday. Friday, we were Catholic, so we had some kind of fish.