QB Focus: Nathan Scheelhaase, Illinois’ new flight plan

Assessing 2011's field generals, in no particular order. Today: Illinois sophomore Nathan Scheelhaase.

Typecasting. Unlike many of his "dual threat" counterparts in the 2009 recruiting class, Scheelhaase was never regarded as anything but a quarterback at the D-I level, and didn't lack for opportunities to flash his arm last year as a first-time starter. But even at the beginning, he was first and foremost a running threat, and increasingly grew into the role as the Illini's spread option attack flourished as the No. 1 rushing offense in the Big Ten. By the end of the regular season, Scheelhaase had run at least 19 times in each of the last five games, topped 100 yards on the ground five times and was on the verge of a 1,000-yard campaign before sacks. (He cracked that mark in the bowl game, thanks to the easiest 55-yard touchdown run of all-time against Baylor.)

As a runner and a passer, though, all of Scheelhasse's success (and failures) came in the context of taking snaps alongside prolific tailback Mikel Leshoure, the Big Ten's leading rusher, who exploded over the second half of the season. Even excluding their 20 overtime points in an epic, 67-65 loss at Michigan in November, the Illini averaged just shy of 40 points on almost 450 yards per game over the last seven, and with Leshoure off to the draft a year early, the spotlight shifts abruptly to Scheelhasse's evolution from Plan B to primary playmaker.

At his best... His reputation as a scrambler shouldn't suggest by any means that Scheelhasse is doomed when asked to throw. As a passer, his debut was divided into seven solid-to-brilliant games and six awful ones, without much gray area in between. When he was on, he was on: During one four-game stretch in October and November, Scheelhaase connected on 11 touchdown passes with no interceptions in high-scoring outings against Indiana, Purdue, Michigan and Minnesota, and delivered sky-high efficiency ratings (upwards of 160) on either side of that run in routs of Penn State and Baylor. He put up at least 20 passes in each of those games, completed better than two-thirds of them and finished the year with better than a 2:1 touchdown:interception ratio.{YSP:MORE}

As often as not, though, Scheelhaase resembled a solid second tailback, in spite of his lack of workhorse size (considering his 6-foot-3 frame, he remains on the slightly scrawnier side at 195 pounds) or home run speed. In the Big Ten, only Leshoure and Michigan dynamo Denard Robinson accounted for more runs covering at least 10 yards, and Scheelhaase also ranked near the top of the conference with eight runs that picked up at least 20 yards. Senior running back Jason Ford may pick up most of Leshore's carries from one-back sets, but like predecessor Juice Williams after star tailback Rashard Mendenhall went pro three years ago, Scheelhaase is the most dangerous option in the backfield and the most likely to keep the attack revving at the same RPMs it reached over the back half of 2010.

At his worst... His occasionally strong numbers through the air shouldn't suggest by any means that Scheelhaase necessarily worries any competent defense with his arm. His seven competent efforts as a passer came against a I-AA team (Southern Illinois), the bottom five pass-efficiency defenses in the Big Ten (Penn State, Indiana, Purdue, Michigan and Minnesota) and one of the most generous secondaries in the Big 12 (Baylor). In his other six games, he completed less than half of his passes, had just three touchdowns to eight picks and topped out with an 87.1 efficiency rating, reminiscent of Juice Williams' notoriously awful debut as a freshman in 2006. Against the likes of Missouri, Ohio State and Michigan State, the Illini went nowhere.

Of course, that's also true for most young quarterbacks who run into the defenses from Missouri, Ohio State and Michigan State, which tried (and succeeded) to turn up the pressure on Scheelhaase by largely taking away his most potent weapon. Now that Scheelhasse himself appears to be the most potent weapon in the running game, it's not clear that he has the arm or the surrounding cast to make defenses pay for overloading against the run: Not counting a couple big plays against overmatched Southern Illinois, Scheelhasse connected on just two passes last season — a 42-yarder at Michigan State and a 52-yarder in the bowl game — that covered more than 40 yards.

Fun Fact. Scheelhaase has a good reputation as a student and "leader," etc. on campus, but he was willing to indulge in a little customary April Fool's Day mirth this year with the help of a pair of master thespians — teammate Steve Hull (in the white hat) and Illini basketball player Brandon Paul:

Good show, fellows! An atmosphere of proper jocundity now achieved, let us now return to the pursuit of scholarship with corresponding gusto, posthaste.

Bonus fact: Scheelhaase is actually an Iowa legacy: His father, Nate Creer, was a starter on the Hawkeyes' 1985 Rose Bowl team, and his uncle, two-sport star Owen Gill, was a second-round draft pick out of Iowa that same year. The Hawkeyes were hot on Scheelhaase's tail as a recruit, like a lot of other schools, but ultimately ran into the cold shoulder along with the rest of them.

What to expect in the fall. First-year offensive coordinator Paul Petrino won a lot of credit for reviving a genuinely struggling offense in 2010, and Leshoure took most of the credit on the field. With even a little bit more from the defense, the Illini could have been ten-game winners — their final three losses after Halloween were down-to-the-wire heartbreakers in which they scored 65, 34 and 23 points, respectively. If the offense can hold court in the neighborhood of 32 points per game, this can be a vastly improved team in terms of the final record.

To hit that mark again without its undisputed star in the running game, though, the offense will have to strike more balance, and Scheelhaase will have to emerge as a true "dual threat" against at least a couple of defenses that aren't wallowing at the bottom of the stat sheets. We know he can run with an All-American occupying the same backfield; the next stage is creating his own lanes by convincing defenses he's at least an occasional threat to hurt them downfield.

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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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