Friday, March 1, 2013
Spring QB battles: Illinois
By Adam Rittenberg
Spring football is under way in the Big Ten, and plenty of quarterback competitions will be taking place around the league in the coming weeks. We've been examining each one.
The series wraps up with the Illinois Fighting Illini.
Incumbent: Nathan Scheelhaase, senior. Started 10 games in 2012 (missed two because of injury) and completed 60.6 percent of his passes for 1,361 yards with four touchdowns and eight interceptions; rushed 125 times for 303 yards and four touchdowns.
Spring contenders: Reilly O'Toole, junior; Miles Osei, senior.
Summer contender: Aaron Bailey, incoming freshman.
The skinny: It's a little unusual to be discussing a quarterback competition when Illinois has a signal caller (Scheelhaase) who boasts 36 career starts entering his senior season. But Scheelhaase has struggled since midway through the 2011 campaign, and the offense's production has dropped off significantly. When a unit finishes 119th out of 120 FBS teams in both scoring (16.7 ppg) and total offense (296.7 ypg), no job is guaranteed and every player must prove himself again.
Bill Cubit is the man Scheelhaase and the other quarterback candidates are looking to impress, as the former Western Michigan head coach steps in as Illinois' new offensive coordinator. Cubit made it clear after his hiring that there will be competition at quarterback this spring.
Scheelhaase had some good moments last season and Illinois had far bigger issues on offense, but he needs a strong showing in spring ball. O'Toole started two games last season and led Illinois to its last win against FCS Charleston Southern. He was accurate, completing 74.7 percent of his passes, and racked up 564 pass yards with six touchdowns and four interceptions. But he barely saw the field during Big Ten play despite the unit's struggles. Osei brings some different skills to the table and can be used as a runner or even as a receiver, but he has a lot to prove as a passer.
The wild card could be Bailey, a decorated recruit who enters the mix this summer. He picked Illinois ahead of several Big Ten teams and brings good size (6-foot-2, 220 pounds) and athleticism to Champaign.
"Huge," Illini head coach Tim Beckman said of having Bailey in the recruiting class. "Great individual. I've been around this business my whole life, and Aaron Bailey is as good of a person as I've ever met. He's a winner, knows what it takes to win."
Prediction: Scheelhaase obviously has a huge edge in experience, and with the right weapons and the right system, he can win in the Big Ten. But he'll be working in his third offensive system in as many years and must acclimate to another new coordinator. Cubit's Western Michigan teams threw the ball a ton, so while Scheelhaase's athleticism is nice, he'll have to show he can be a pass-first player.
O'Toole certainly has a chance in the spring, and he could be a good fit for what Cubit wants to do. But because Scheelhasse is so much more experienced, O'Toole will need to create a tangible gap in the coming weeks. Bailey also could be a factor in preseason camp, although he'll have to pick up a lot in a short period of time to beat out a three-year starter.
Ultimately, Scheelhaase gets the nod right now. He has had his moments the past few years and should have a better supporting cast this season. But O'Toole will push him this spring, and if neither quarterback progresses, look out for Bailey in preseason camp. Beckman can't afford to wait on a quarterback to blossom.