- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase is the only quarterback in the Leaders division to have started every game the past two seasons.
He has helped the Illini to consecutive bowl wins for the first time in team history. He served as a team captain as a redshirt sophomore. He has passed for nearly 4,000 yards (3,935) and 30 touchdowns in his first two seasons as the starter.
But when Illinois opened spring practice, there were questions, at least from the outside, about Scheelhaase's status as the starter. During Illinois' offensive downturn in the second half of 2011, the coaches weren't shy about using Reilly O'Toole under center. O'Toole appeared in 10 games and saw increased action late in the regular season, attempting 33 passes in the final two games.
As a new coaching staff arrived with a new offense, the quarterback race looked like an intriguing subplot of the spring. But head coach Tim Beckman wasn't about to write off what Scheelhaase had done.
"Coach Beckman told me at the start of spring that it would be, in a sense, my job to lose," Scheelhaase said Wednesday. "I just want to go out there and show them what I can do. These coaches haven't seen me before. The best mind-set you can have is to do something [so] the coaches want to put you on the field because of the talent you have."
Scheelhaase said he has taken the majority of reps with the first-team offense but added that both he and O'Toole are pretty talented quarterbacks who can get the job done."
"Nathan's the one who's going to get the first reps, but Reilly's also getting involved in the 1s," Beckman said Wednesday. "We want to make sure they get the same opportunities."
Beckman has enough confidence in both Scheelhaase and O'Toole to use Miles Osei, the team's No. 3 quarterback, in an expanded role. The 6-foot, 200-pound Osei has been used at quarterback, running back and wide receiver, and will see time at the latter two positions in Saturday's spring game.
Illinois is looking to build depth at both running back and receiver, particularly after losing All-Big Ten wideout A.J. Jenkins, and has auditioned both Osei and starting cornerback Terry Hawthorne as pass-catchers.
The speed and complexity of the team's new spread offense has stood out to Scheelhaase, who enjoys the learning process. According to Chris Beatty, the team's co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Scheelhaase has grasped the system faster than he hoped.
"He's just played a lot of ball," Beatty said. "I remember watching him when it was [67-65], whatever that Michigan game was, a couple years ago. You sit back and realize then he was a freshman playing. You've been out there, you've been in the wars, you've had a good foundation. He's been able to pick things up really quickly.
"Nathan's probably a little bit ahead because he's played the most, but we want to have competition."