By DAVID MERCER,
Associated Press Writer
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) A couple of days after Illinois beat Northern Illinois, a fan talking on a local radio show summed of the sentiment of many who watched Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase leap over defenders for extra yards over and over again.
He needs to stay on his feet or slide under those tacklers, or he’ll get hurt. Somewhere in Champaign, the redshirt freshman’s dad had heard enough and got on the phone.
“The kid is not gonna’ slide, the kid plays 110 percent-hard every single down,” explained Nate Creer, who was a defensive back at Iowa in the 1980s. “You can’t take that way from the kid; that’s the way the kid plays.”
Those lunges over defenders, when Scheelhaase seems to hang in the air, and his athleticism have so far defined his brief career at Illinois. As the Illini (2-1) get ready to host No. 2 Ohio State, their quarterback is still learning when to throw rather than tucking the ball and taking off.
Through three games, Scheelhaase has completed 31 of 57 passes for 380 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions. He has run the ball 40 times for 204 yards, second only to tailback Mikel Leshoure’s 398 rushing yards.
Illinois coach Ron Zook says Scheelhaase is learning fast, and quickly becoming more than 195 pounds of raw athleticism looking for an opportunity to run.
“He’s a gym rat, he’s always studying,” Zook said. “He’s going to be a guy who’s not going to continue to make the same mistakes.”
Some of Scheelhaase’s stats back that up.
He threw all three of his interceptions in his first college game, a season-opening loss to Missouri. He’s thrown 34 passes since without a pick.
But he’s also benefiting from a simplified game plan, one that offensive coordinator Paul Petrino has adjusted to match his young quarterback’s progress. Scheelhaase says he’s practicing patience, taking in everything he can from every play – whether it’s a touchdown or a game-changing interception.
“Everyone wants to be great right now,” he said. “Everyone wants to make every play right now. But even Drew Brees doesn’t make every play. You have to be patient with it. The biggest thing I can do is take every opportunity, whether it’s a good play, bad play, good quarter, bad quarter, and learn from it and use it.”
Even, he said, from his own acrobatics.
Minutes after the Northern Illinois game, Scheelhaase, talking to reporters, dissected the three plays he threw himself through the air:
– The first was a touchdown, a dive into the corner of the end zone. Absolutely worth the risk.
– The second was a third-down conversion – Scheelhaase was already past the marker, he conceded, so maybe not the wisest move.
– And the third? “Probably the least necessary of them all,” he said. “I was just trying to make a play and that’s important for our guys.”
“I probably need to do a little less of it,” he added.
Zook sounds torn. Part of him is in Scheelhaase’s dad’s camp, but part of him knows the quarterback roster includes senior Eddie McGee – who has struggled under center in brief relief this season – and a pair of true freshmen.
“I wish he wouldn’t do it, but he’s such a competitor,” Zook said. “He’s getting smarter with his decision-making but I can’t take his game away from him.”
Scheelhaase noted that quarterbacks coach Jeff Brohm hadn’t said much about his diving beyond reminding him to be careful, and congratulating him on a nice win over Northern Illinois.
Then again, Scheelhaase said with a smile, he has no doubt Big Ten defenders would like nothing better than seeing him leave his feet.
“I bet they love to see me jump in the air because they get some extra shots in on me,” he said. “That’s what the game’s all about.”
Updated October 1, 2010
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