RANTOUL — If for any reason Nathan Scheelhaase does not take snaps this football season, it projects as a psychological body blow to a fragile Illini offense.
He's a two-year starter and the face of the program. He is smart and mature, an established leader who guided two bowl wins. He fits the spread system and led the team in rushing last year with 624 yards.
So, yes, his absence would be a blow. But not a knockout blow. Coach Tim Beckman is preparing for all eventualities. Like you, he realizes that quarterbacks who carry the football a lot are vulnerable. And like you, he knows Scheelhaase's aerial production slipped from an Oct. 1 high of 391 yards against Northwestern to meager late-season numbers: 63 at Penn State, 170 vs. Michigan and 99 vs. Wisconsin as he shared time with Reilly O'Toole in that game, and was benched early at Minnesota.
Clearly, as the season wore on, opposing secondaries crowded UI receivers and dared Scheelhaase to go deep.
So a new show-me staff has backups poised if Scheelhaase either (1) hits another slump or (2) is incapacitated.
Understand now, this is not a call for QB No. 2. That's a fan thing. In most cities outside of New Orleans, Chicago (the Bears learned better) and Foxborough, Mass., fans believe the No. 2 guy could excel if the coach would just give him a chance.
There is more to quarterbacking than throwing a tight spiral. That said, to the untrained eye, suburban products O'Toole and Miles Osei throw a stronger ball. Quarterbacks coach and co-coordinator Chris Beatty, who arrived from Vanderbilt in January, saw this right away.
"Osei has been underrated as a passer," Beatty said. "His arm is as live as anybody's, and he showed this in the spring as well. I think people overlook him.
"We have a No. 1 in Nathan. I don't look at Miles as No. 3. I feel we have two No. 2s. This is a process. We can't jump to conclusions."
Osei was extraordinarily versatile in the spring, bouncing around the field as a receiver, ball carrier and passer. The UI coaches are not ready to reveal their tricky stuff, but it's a good bet Osei and Scheelhaase will appear at times together. Osei is a 200-pound southpaw whose darting skills earned him a few kickoff returns in 2011. He is tough enough to play on special teams and can easily transition from one position to another.
"It seems like I'm more in the mix," Osei said. "All the quarterbacks have different qualities and arm strengths. There's a lot being thrown at all of us right now, and it's different playing so many positions. I'll play anywhere to get on the field."
O'Toole (6-4, 220) arrived from Wheaton a year ago as a dropback passer but says: "I run well enough to keep them honest. I picked up this offense quicker than last year's. There's a little more shotgun to it. Last year helped me understand how to study the playbook. On the field, I'm trying to speed up my release."
Point is, there is more here than meets the eye. If Scheelhaase doesn't move the team against Western Michigan or at Arizona State, it is clear from Beatty's words that he believes he has alternatives.
Meanwhile, everyone is wondering: Are Illini receivers sufficiently elusive to make the quarterbacks effective? Athlon Magazine rated them 11th in the Big Ten (UI's O-line 8th, running backs 9th).
When defenses doubled A.J. Jenkins (90 catches) late last season, the other receivers either couldn't get open or the QB couldn't find them. Downfield connections virtually disappeared during the six-game losing streak.
"When you have a first-round talent (Jenkins), a lot of the schemes are naturally designed to him," Beatty said.
"I think we have some guys ready to break out. They don't have a lot of catches, but they are experienced in the speed of the game and in playing before large crowds. It's customary for guys to emerge during their junior years."
Beatty referred to his three junior starters: Floridians Ryan Lankford and Darius Millines and an Arkansas native, Spencer Harris. All three saw action as freshmen. In two seasons and 27 combined starts, they show 69 receptions. Beatty also has mobile tight end Jon Davis and cornerback Terry Hawthorne up his pass-catching sleeve, among others.
"As a group, we hope they take advantage of what we give them, and that some of them will step up," Beatty said. "Millines has a skill set that includes catching and lateral quickness. We hope to take advantage without Jenkins' numbers."
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.