For the Illinois Fighting Illini's young quarterbacks, getting hit is just the start.
Illinois is allowing quarterbacks Jacob Charest, Nathan Scheelhaase and Chandler Whitmer to take on contact this spring. The three survived Saturday's scrimmage without injury, and will go live again in another scrimmage this week and in the spring game April 24 at Memorial Stadium. Although head coach Ron Zook admittedly is a bit nervous about seeing his quarterbacks shedding the no-contact jerseys, he and his assistants believe it's necessary.
In fact, Illinois' new-look offensive staff is doing all it can to make April feel like October for the quarterbacks.
"We’ve just got to get them as much game-type experience, live action, as they can get, and simulate the game as much as we can so they’re tested and ready to go when the season comes," Illini quarterbacks coach Jeff Brohm told me. "This is a sport where tough guys play. You’ve got to be tough, you’ve got to be physical, you’ve got to be able to take a little criticism. You’ve got to be able to handle it when things go wrong, how you’re going to respond.
"And the players have responded."
Brohm admits it's a work in progress and doesn't downplay the situation in Champaign. Illinois has a new offensive coordinator in Paul Petrino, three new offensive assistants and a new offensive system. Of the three quarterback candidates, only Charest, a sophomore, has experience at the college level, after playing in four games (starting one) last season.
Brohm also provides honest assessments of each quarterback at this stage:
Charest: "More of your drop-back passer, not real mobile."
Scheelhaase: "Extremely athletic, can run, just not a very polished passer at this point, and it’s not his strength."
Whitmer: "He's not real big. He throws the ball extremely well, but he’s not real mobile."
Petrino's offense ideally wants a quarterback who can sling the ball and operate in an NFL-style system. Ryan Mallett certainly met those demands last year at Arkansas, and it's why he's considered the nation's top quarterback prospect for the 2011 NFL draft. At Illinois, the coaches are prepared to adjust the scheme to fit their personnel, and Brohm said the quarterbacks will throw on the move and run some zone read, as they did under the previous regime.
Scheelhaase and Charest both made big plays in Saturday's scrimmage, and while Scheelhaase has generated the most buzz this spring, Zook said, "they've all had their days when they've had the upper hand."
When will the coaches decide on a starter? The sooner, the better. Zook wants to find the quarterback who best learns from his mistakes this spring.
"We do have a lot of young guys, and right now, it’s hard to tell who’s going to be the guy," Brohm said. "We would like to do it by the end of the spring, but that’s not going to be a guarantee. We're going to make sure we make the right decision."
Brohm doesn't expect the quarterbacks to be hit in fall camp, citing the injury risk so close to the season. But from now until Sept. 4, when Illinois meets Missouri in St. Louis, the quarterbacks will be challenged every possible way in practice.
"We just want them to get under the fire and see what it’s really like out there," Brohm said. "We’re trying to demand the best and make sure that they leave this field knowing, ‘I put myself in the game situation every single rep I had, and pretended the pressure was on the line.’
"If we do that, then we’ve done everything we can.”