Have you heard? An Illini football coach is getting married on the Fourth of July weekend. Actually, it’s set for Saturday, July 6.
His name is Nathan Scheelhaase, and he’ll honeymoon with his longtime girlfriend Morgan Miller of Kansas City and Texas Christian.
Did I say coach? Yep, with NCAA rules denying the Tim Beckman staff from overseeing voluntary practices with the team during the summer, Scheelhaase and fellow quarterback Reilly O’Toole will run the squad in drills throughout the next three months.
“We’ll be throwing routes in 7-on-7 drills and going over scripts three days each week, and the other three days running and lifting,” Scheelhaase said this week.
Counting his first summer as a starter in 2010, Scheelhaase soon will have 12 months of coaching time here, almost as long as Beckman and longer than most of his assistant coaches.
“This summer is more important than any other,” Scheelhaase said. “We made strides in the spring, but when you don’t win any Big Ten games, you have a lot of ground to make up.”
The fifth-year senior also will carry four hours of graduate work in sports management while breaking in, among others, freshman quarterback Aaron Bailey. Said Scheelhaase:
“We want to break any bad habits before we get to fall practice.”
Coordinator Bill Cubit planned for this.
“For the last two months, I’ve been teaching the quarterbacks how to coach, what they need all the players to do this summer,” he said.
“I’ve had conversations with Bailey, and it’ll be up to Nate and Reilly to bring him up to speed. Nate and Reilly have to know where all the receivers and running backs and linemen are supposed to be on every play. We’ll have leaders in each group ... with the wideouts, the linemen, the backs ... but when it comes to 7-on-7, the quarterbacks are in charge.”
Even though Scheelhaase confirmed his status as No. 1 in a brilliant 24-for-32 spring game, Cubit is pleased with O’Toole’s development.
“Reilly has really grown during my time here. He understands what it takes, and he can see that he is in the plans,” Cubit said.
The trick to Cubit’s pass-oriented attack is developing precise timing and getting rid of the ball quickly.
“It must be exact, otherwise it gets out of sync,” Cubit said. “The shame is that we can’t spend a few hours with them in the summer, as we see in basketball. The NCAA needs to take a look at this.”
Taking it in stride
Within the UI’s spectator sports, some of the most productive athletes in recent years have, perhaps due to expectations, been targeted for the heaviest criticism.
Think back to basketball playmakers Frank Williams and Demetri McCamey and, in the last few seasons, Brandon Paul. Consider what Juice Williams went through.
And now Scheelhaase. Last season’s numbers — passing for 1,361 yards and four TDs — were far below his previous numbers.
“Since I got here I’ve heard it all ... that I’m not fast enough, big enough or have a strong enough arm. You’re always going to hear things, and there’s some negativity,” he replied.
Scheelhaase handles criticism with grace and acceptance.
“Not just me, but our entire team will have a chip on their shoulder. None of the magazines that come out this summer will have our offense or defense ranked higher than last or next to last in the Big Ten.
“That gives us a mentality that it doesn’t matter what people say, only what happens day to day in the weightroom and on the field. It is not about who we have returning or what happened last year.
“For me, there are a lot of differences based on what I’ve seen and gone through.
Seniors are always excited about having one final opportunity to write their legacy. You want to hang on as long as possible knowing that this is the last go-around.”
From Scheelhaase himself
Injuries struck twice last season, severely limiting his production. He had 2,693 yards passing and running as a redshirt freshman, 2,734 in 2011 and fell off a cliff to 1,361 in 2012.
“All my life playing football I never missed a game until last season. Dealing with the ankle and knee, it was frustrating because, after the first game, it felt like I could never get my head above water. This is a part of the game that I learned a lot about. You can’t prepare for injuries, but they are a part of the game.”
After two seasons under Paul Petrino and one with co-coordinators, Scheelhaase now is learning his fourth system in five seasons.
“I feel like I understand the game pretty well, and I like Coach Cubit. My biggest frustration, other than the injury, was how we never established an identity on the offensive side last season. We didn’t know who we were.
“Going 2-10 is tough, but it can also make things easier because, after 2-10, you KNOW things have to change. You start from a foundation and establish a new identity.”
Cubit appears to be meticulous as a hands-on teacher of quarterbacks. Is he changing anything?
“Yes, he sees things. He works directly on a day-to-day basis with the quarterbacks, from our footwork to how we release the ball to how we drop back to where and how fast he wants the ball delivered. He expects a lot.
“Coach Cubit stresses getting rid of the ball and into playmakers’ hands quick. He doesn’t want the line to be required to block for more than 2.2 seconds. He emphasizes mechanics, how he wants us to hold the ball when we drop back, stuff that was different for us. We’ve had 15 practices, and he wants this to become human nature by the start of the season.”
Petrino never seemed to worry about you getting injured in 2010 and 2011, and you rushed for 868 and 624 yards. Do you expect to run the ball more or less this season?
“That’s hard to say. Coach Cubit understands that I’m a threat in the run game, but the quarterbacks were never live in the spring, so we haven’t game-planned for it. Hopefully, I will understand better going into the season.
“Looking at his style, I don’t think he’s had many guys who could contribute in the running game. I think he is excited to have that option.”
You’ve had two exceptional bowl wins, completing your first 13 passes in the 38-14 Texas Bowl win over Baylor and RGIII, and hitting 18 of 30 passes and running for 110 yards in the 20-14 defeat of UCLA. What are your reflections?
“The win over Baylor (Dec. 29, 2010) was amazing when you see all the talent they had on that team. They were one of the best in country the next year. We were right on point in that game. Talent and star players don’t always win but rather the team that is more unified.”
A.J. Jenkins caught 90 balls in 2011, and a 6-0 start that season turned south just as opponents blanketed the Scheelhaase-to-Jenkins duo. What happened in the 0-6 slide?
“The beauty of college football, unlike the NFL, is that players come and players leave every year. The year before we lost a great running back in Mikel Leshoure. Then it was Jenkins. The key is having guys step up and fill those shoes.
“Even when we were hitting on all cylinders in those six games in 2011, I don’t know if we were ever comfortable with our identity. We were relying on big plays early and on A.J. When people started doubling A.J. and taking away what he was doing, we weren’t comfortable with doing things a different way. And I don’t think we were as unified as we should have been.”
The Illini are starting over in the secondary. You threw against them this spring. How badly will veterans like Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green be missed?
“I’m excited about our development. Everybody wants to be a starter, and young guys like V’Angelo Bentley, Eaton Spence and Taylor Barton are taking the opportunity and running with it. I’ve seen their transformation over the spring.”
Last question: You missed the postgame press conference after the spring game. Were you upset about something?
“It’s good to clear that up. Afterward, I did the interview with the Big Ten Network, and the routine was a little different because I went to the other locker room with the Blue team. I showered and had my stuff over there, and I didn’t realize anything else was called for.
“I have to realize that I’m always on call, and I enjoy getting a chance to talk about the team. There wasn’t anything to be upset about. Our Blue team won.”
Oops, one other question. What do you think you’ll be doing a year from now? Is the NFL still a dream?
“Great question. I’ve prayed a lot about it. Ultimately, after the season, it’ll be made clear what the next step is. And I’ll get to make it as a family decision with Morgan. I’m looking forward to the unknown. It would take a special year to draw NFL interest, and I’d go at it wholeheartedly. The NFL has been great for some of the players I’ve played with.”
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.