Wisch: Zook’s Decision To Play O’Toole A Real Head-Scratcher

By Dave Wischnowsky –

(CBS) One thing that I will say about Ron Zook is that the guy makes decisions.

It’s just that I often don’t understand them.

In 2006, for example, I watched dumbfounded as Illinois’ head football coach decided to go for two-point conversions (twice) in the first quarter (the first quarter) and failed each time during an eventual 34-32 home loss to Indiana (you can do the math).

Last October, in another instance, I scratched my head when Zook opted to kick a field goal while trailing 17-10 and inside the Ohio State 20 with 4:36 left in the game rather than go for a TD – and the upset – of the Buckeyes in Champaign. Illinois ultimately lost 24-13.

In between, there have been many other instances where the calls made by Zook have left me downright baffled. And baffled was again how I found myself last Saturday when Illinois’ seventh-year head coach opted to burn highly touted freshman quarterback Reilly O’Toole’s redshirt eligibility – by playing him for three meaningless snaps in the fourth quarter of a season opener vs. Arkansas State.

After the Illini’s 33-15 victory, during which O’Toole went 1-for-2 for four yards and had his shoulder dinged up, Zook said, “I don’t want guys who want to redshirt.”

And that’s all well and good. But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t redshirt them anyway.

Especially when the redshirt candidate in question is a talented first-year quarterback such as Wheaton Warrenville South product O’Toole. And especially when Illinois already has a well-established, young QB in redshirt sophomore Nathan Scheelhaase, who would appear to have a stranglehold on the position through 2013. And also especially when Illinois has another competent quarterback in sophomore Miles Osei fully capable of taking a few meaningless snaps early in the season.

Despite all of that, though, Zook chose to play O’Toole last weekend. So, that means the option of redshirting the QB is now gone and that, eligibility-wise, O’Toole is now just one season behind Scheelhaase – a guy who merely passed for a career-high 268 yards on Saturday and is on pace to become Illinois’ all-time leader in total yardage. He doesn’t look to be giving up his starting job anytime soon.

After Saturday’s game, O’Toole said about Illinois’ coaches, “When they recruited me, they said I might have a chance to play and that was fine. But as camp went on and I started learning the plays a little more, I started getting a little more confident that if I had to play I’d be OK. It was fun.”

For O’Toole, I’m sure it was (despite the banged-up shoulder). After all, kids that come to college to play football want to come to college and, you know, play football.

But that’s just the problem with Zook’s decision. Now that the 6-foot-4, 220-pound O’Toole has played, the kid’s going to want to play. And I find it difficult to believe that a QB as talented as O’Toole will be satisfied to just serve as a backup for three long seasons before finally getting a clear shot to start in just one, his senior year.

Now, perhaps Zook really thinks O’Toole will be OK with that scenario, perhaps he’s eyeing a future two-quarterback system (rarely a good idea) or perhaps he’s deeply concerned about Scheelhaase becoming injured – before he ever has been. I don’t know.

But it also could just be that there wasn’t a great deal of foresight or long-term planning put into the decision to play O’Toole so early in the season, which Zook said he made a few days before the opener.

Now that O’Toole has played, though, Illinois placed itself beneath the microscope, which will be scrutinizing just how much the hotshot quarterback plays each game – and not just this season.

But in every game for the next three.
Do you agree with Dave? Post your comments below.

davewisch Wisch: Zook’s Decision To Play O’Toole A Real Head Scratcher

Dave Wischnowsky

If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.

  • Larry Horse's Arse

    My only thought at the time is that Zook is acting like a guy who is in a make it or break-it year for his job.

  • tom Sharp

    Your assumption here (and it’s wrong) is that the starter won’t get hurt for the next few years. Even though the Illinois schedule has them playing only a few teams with above average defenses, you need at least two decent to good QBs in college football. The red shirt is for the 3rd or 4th guy, not #2.

  • Arturius

    What the writer is forgetting, and I’m not saying that it will happen, is that ROT can redshirt other years as well. Get him the experience now so that if he needs to he can replace NS if he gets hurt. While NS has not gotten hurt, the way he plays allows for too many close calls to have an unproven or a poor QB. Clearly the coaches don’t think Osei can be a serviceable backup if Nathan goes down this year, and Zook will need to do well if he wants to keep his job.

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