- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase first learned about Stefan LeFors in the same way most of us did.
When LeFors blew up as Louisville's quarterback and became a household name in 2004, Scheelhaase, then a middle schooler in Kansas City, followed his story.
"His senior year, ESPN did a special on him," Scheelhaase said. "He spoke sign language because his parents were deaf. I watched that and then I watched this guy and he's a little, 5-[foot-]10 nothing, 180, 185 pounds, and I think they were the No. 1 offense in the country that year."
Scheelhaase is once again watching LeFors, but for very different reasons. Illinois' offense is now under the direction of coordinator Paul Petrino, who served as Louisville's offensive coordinator during LeFors' record-setting run.
Petrino's offense can accommodate different types of quarterbacks -- Ryan Mallett, an NFL style, rifle-armed, drop-back passer, excelled in the system last season at Arkansas -- but it's pretty easy to identify the paradigm for Scheelhaase, an elite athlete who, like LeFors, won't scare anyone with his size.
"He's a lot like Stefan," Petrino said. "Very similar players. He's faster than Stefan was, and he's a redshirt freshman. Stefan didn't play until his redshirt junior year. You just see things they do, the way [Scheelhaase] moves around on the play-action, a lot of the plays he does well were plays that Stefan does well, so a lot of that stuff really reminds you of him."
It's high praise for Scheelhaase, but Petrino has high expectations for the quarterback in 2010. Although Illinois hasn't formally named a starting quarterback -- Scheelhaase competed with Jacob Charest and Chandler Whitmer throughout spring practice -- it's fairly obvious that Scheelhaase is the man to beat entering the summer.
The 6-3, 195-pound redshirt freshman took most of the reps with the first-team offense this spring, and made several big plays with both his arm and his feet in four scrimmages.
"Nathan is a fiery guy; he's a really good leader," Petrino said. "He's just a great competitor, and he's going to do whatever it takes to win. He does a real good job running with the ball, making plays. He's worked hard to understand the passing game. He's got a nice, quick release, he knows where he's going with the ball and he's getting more accurate every day.
"If he can do that, we'll be in great shape."
Head coach Ron Zook saw the same fire from Scheelhaase (pronounced SHEEL-house) on the scout team last year, as the true freshman never backed down from the first-team defense. Senior wide receiver Jarred Fayson described Scheelhaase as "a bit before his time" in how he carries himself and his approach to the game.
"A competitive attitude is good to have every day, whether you're a fourth-year starter or you're just trying to get on the field for the first time," Scheelhaase said. "You want yourself to be perfect when you're doing things like that. You don't want to have a bad play, have a bad practice or anything because you want to compete with yourself, compete with others around you and on a bigger level, you want to be better than your opponents."
He admitted having "first-day jitters" at the start of spring ball, well aware of what was at stake following the graduation of Juice Williams, a four-year starter at quarterback. Scheelhaase knows he still must absorb more of Petrino's offense, but he built confidence throughout the spring and brings some versatility to the position.
And while he never shies away from competitive situations, he also doesn't get weighed down by Illinois' unsettled situation at quarterback.
"You're running with blinders on," he said.
And down the road, he hopes to catch up with LeFors.
"He's a fun guy to watch," Scheelhaase said. "He ran their offense well, ran it with confidence. If I can be in his ballpark, if anybody can be in his ballpark, it would be great because he was a great college quarterback."
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