Writing Illini’s first installment of its football position breakdowns goes under center to dissect the Illinois quarterbacks, a position which in recent years has been one of inconsistency but is now one of uncertainty.
With four-year starter Isiah “Juice” Williams gone, backup Eddie McGee (pictured bottom right) moved to wide receiver, and sophomore Jacob Charest having transferred, Illinois finds itself with no experienced quarterbacks as it heads into the 2010 season.
Redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase (pictured left) has been named the starter for the September 4th Arch Rivalry game against Missouri, and appears to have the personality and confidence to play the position.
Of course, the big question remains how long it will take Scheelhaase to adjust to the speed of the college game and play quarterback at a functional level, especially with Illinois under a new offensive coordinator (Paul Petrino) this season?
Finding a Starter
When the offseason began, the Illini quarterback race appeared wide open, with three underclassmen in Charest, Scheelhaase and true freshman Chandler Whitmer (pictured top right) all possible candidates for the job.
As these three players jostled for the starting spot during spring camp, Illinois head coach Zook described the race as too close to call,adding that:
They’ve all had their days when they’ve had the upper hand.
As the spring progressed to summer, rumors swirled, with some believing that Charest (the only candidate with any college game experience) was the sure starter and others indicating that Scheelhaase had begun to separate himself from the pack.
Zook finally put the speculation to rest on June 2nd when he named Scheelhaase as the starting quarterback.
Just 6 days after this announcement, team officials reported that Charest had left Illinois to return to his home state of North Carolina.
Charest’s departure reportedly had nothing to do with Scheelhaase getting named the starter but rather was based on a desire to be closer to his family.
With Charest’s departure, Illinois now has no quarterbacks with real game experience, assuring that despite his position change, McGee will get some practice reps as an emergency backup quarterback.
Despite this glaring inexperience at the quarterback position, the coaching staff maintains that it is not worried. Zook addressed the issue at Big Ten Media Day earlier this week:
I’m excited to see Nathan… I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people.
In addition to playing his first game against arch rival Missouri, a team that has had its way with Illinois in recent years, Scheelhaase will start his first true road game at Beaver Stadium in front of 110,000+ Penn State fans.
Even though the quarterback position may not be facing the most ideal conditions to begin what most are considering a make-or-break season for Zook, it figures to be one of the more compelling team story lines to follow this fall.
The Quarterback Depth Chart:
Opening Day Starter: #2 Nathan Scheelhaase
Year: Redshirt Freshman
Height / Weight: 6’-3” / 195 lbs
Collegiate Game Experience: None
Scheelhaase attended Rockhurst High School in Kansas City, Missouri, where he lead his team to a 13-0 record and state championship as a junior and followed up with an impressive 10-2 season as a senior. He has been described as a strong runner and passer. His father, Nate Creer, played football at Iowa in the eighties. Scheelhaase recently discussed his thoughts heading into the 2010 season.
The Backup Plan: #7 Chandler Whitmer
Height / Weight: 5’-11” / 190 lbs
Collegiate Game Experience: None
Whitmer attended Downers Grove South High School in Downers Grove, Illinois. Despite his lack of size, Whitmer was heavily recruited due to his excellent accuracy and consistency with the ball and his awareness in the pocket. He passed for 43 yards and a touchdown in Illinois’ spring game as a backup to Charest. Here is one Illini blogger’s breakdown of Whitmer.
The Third Stringer: #16 Miles Osei
Height / Weight: 5’-11” / 198 lbs
Collegiate Game Experience: None
Osei attended Prospect High School in Mount Prospect, Illinois. He was rated a three star recruit by Rivals.com. Osei originally gave a verbal commitment to NIU but eventually chose the Illini over the Huskies, Air Force and Navy.
The following Illini players are quarterbacks who are active members of the team, but are not expected to see action on the field this year. An asterisks by the player’s name denotes that they are available to redshirt the season should the coaches choose for them to do so.
Some Thoughts on the Illini Quarterback Position
While the Illini quarterbacks may lack experience, they certainly have talent.
Naming Scheelhaase as the starter has allowed him to get comfortable with his receivers while letting the Illini team become more familiar with the young quarterback.
While many questions about the quarterback position will remain unanswered until the season opener, and possibly much longer, it is not out of the question that Scheelhaase could have a stellar debut, particularly if Illinois’ running game is as strong as expected and if the coaches remain patient and confident in the green signal caller.
However, don’t expect an error-free season from Scheelhaase or whoever else is at quarterback. With new players getting accustomed to a new offensive system under a new offensive coordinator, there are bound to be some bumps as everyone settles in to the season.
As is the case with any young quarterback, it will be key for Scheelhaase to learn early to take care of the football, avoid foolish mistakes and make the plays that are there all the while banking on the running game.
Writing Illini Projections
After suffering the initial shock and awe of his first collegiate game, Scheelhaase collects himself and makes an impressive debut for a freshman. Midway through the season, he really starts to find his form and the offense is able to air it out more consistently, taking the pressure off the running backs.
McGee sees limited action as a backup quarterback and through the D.C. Package, Illinois’ version of the wildcat. Though not a major weapon, the D.C. package is helpful in early season redzone situations when the coaching staff is reluctant to let the freshman quarterback throw the ball.
Preseason Quarterback Grade: C+
Hopes are high, but there are too many unanswered questions for even the most optimistic Illinois fans. A strong showing this season could result in a large improvement for the postseason grades, while a season full of struggles and mistakes could cause a dramatic drop.