- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Nathan Scheelhaase used to watch teams run the spread offense and wonder why they were so effective. In high school, one of the players he admired was West Virginia quarterback Pat White.
"You see them running it and doing a good job with it and you hope you can do the same one day," he said.
The Illinois quarterback is getting his chance now. The Illini are switching to a spread offense under new head coach Tim Beckman, and that transformation is in full bloom this spring. As with any spread attack, much depends on the triggerman, so Scheelhaase's adaptation and grasp of the new system is paramount.
The team held its first six practices of the spring before taking this week off for spring break. Scheelhaase said the players are catching on quickly.
"We've made a whole lot of progress and there have been a whole lot of positives," he said. "The coaches have even told us on various occasions how pleased and surprised they are at how we've been picking up and moving through with things."
How different is this offense from the one the Illini ran under Paul Petrino the last two years? There's all new terminology, of course. Scheelhaase said the passing concepts aren't that dissimilar from the past. The biggest change, he said, is in the running game.
"This offense likes to get people in space," he said. "Get fast guys the ball with space and a chance to make guys miss one on one. We're stretching the field a whole lot more."
There's also the no-huddle aspect. Scheelhaase said Illinois ran its high-tempo offense full bore for the first time in practice No. 5.
"It was really eye-opening, for both sides," he said. "You could feel the defense getting tired even in practice. We got seven plays deep in that drive, and then the pass rush wasn't as strong. They revealed their coverages a lot quicker than usual. Picking up the pace helped a lot, based on one series and one practice. I think it will be a big help to us to keep that going."
This isn't the first time Scheelhaase has been exposed to this kind of offense. He was a redshirt freshman under former offensive coordinator Mike Schultz, who engineered a spread just like Mike Locksley had done before him.
But Scheelhaase started the past two years under Petrino, who favored a more multiple attack based around a power run game. Beckman's teams at Toledo used the spread offense, though Scheelhaase said the Illini won't merely be mirror images of those Rockets. Co-offensive coordinators Billy Gonzales and Chris Beatty have added their own wrinkles.
"We're doing stuff that coach Beatty did at West Virginia and stuff that coach Gonzales did when he was at Florida with Tim Tebow," Scheelhaase said. "That's what makes this offense so cool, because it's not just one person's offense. It seems like it's almost three or four minds working together to kind of make this offense go, which makes it pretty tough for a defense to get a hold on what we like to do."
Scheelhaase will have to hold off a charge from Reilly O'Toole this spring to keep his starting job. He no longer has his favorite target from last season, wideout A.J. Jenkins, and the Illini are perilously thin at receiver and running back for this kind of offense.
So there are some reasons for concern as Illinois makes the switch. But so far, Scheelhaase is enjoying the process.
"I like learning new things all the time," he said. "It's cool because when I was growing up I watched Pat White and things like that. You see things working and you don't really know how it works until you get into the thick of it. It's neat getting that perspective."