If his street cred needed a boost, Illinois sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase found it at Assembly Hall last weekend. Dee Brown, the one-man fastbreak who had conservative east-central Illinois loving braids and head bands, had something to say, and he did it by wearing a Scheelhaase jersey to the alumni basketball reunion. One face of the Illini to another.
RANTOUL -- If his street cred needed a boost, Illinois sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase found it at Assembly Hall last weekend.
Dee Brown, the one-man fastbreak who had conservative east-central Illinois loving braids and head bands, had something to say, and he did it by wearing a Scheelhaase jersey to the alumni basketball reunion. One face of the Illini to another.
"He said something like, 'You're the truth,' '' Scheelhaase said after tweeting a thank you. "It's good to get that respect. Any fan knows Dee Brown was the heart and soul of that team. For him to have a No. 2 jersey, that's pretty cool.''
One year after Mikel Leshoure's school-record 1,697 yards rushing carried the Illini to a winning season and their first bowl victory in 11 years, it now falls on the shoulders of Scheelhaase, who started all 13 games last season, improved in the second half of the season and peaked in the 38-14 win over Baylor in the Texas Bowl.
In a program that lost its three best players to early entry in the NFL draft, Scheelhaase is the rising star, the leader, the quarterback groomed since birth to play college football and the player least likely to get into trouble. He might be Mr. Nice Guy -- Fellowship of Christian Athletes takes up most of his time away from football -- but make no mistake: This is his team, he said.
"I feel confident in saying that,'' Scheelhaase said. "The most important thing for a leader is you have to lead by example. A leader also is judged by what his followers are doing. I have the right mindset of where our team needs to be. I think everyone on our team agrees with that.''
Scheelhaase made a good first impression, benefiting from the arrival of offensive coordinator Paul Petrino. An option quarterback out of Kansas City (Mo.) Rockhurst High School, Scheelhaase passed for 1,825 yards after a strong second half to last season, when he threw for 1,044 yards with 13 touchdowns and one interception in the final seven games.
He completed his first 13 pass attempts in the bowl game, and Petrino gushed over Scheelhaase during this first week of preseason practice. Scheelhaase gained 15 pounds from the weight room, spent more time in the playbook and felt more comfortable. That may allow Illinois to jump from 10th in the Big Ten in passing a year ago.
"There are a whole lot of different things he can do now that he couldn't do last year,'' Petrino said, such as difficult passes he couldn't throw last fall, before improvements in several areas.
"It's a little bit of everything: knowledge, quick release and strength.''
Petrino said he's got about 30 more plays he can call with Scheelhaase this fall.
"He's built his resume from things in our playbook now that I offer him,'' Petrino said.
Scheelhaase not only is throwing it better, he's making quicker reads and intent on showing he's a big-play threat with his arm or his legs. He rushed for 868 yards and five TDs last season.
"I hope to break more long runs this year,'' he said. "Fans saw me as a solid runner. I could do a whole lot better.
"I've seen 13 games and been through the grind. A lot of quarterbacks work hard. After playing a year, they work smarter. It makes me know what's better to watch on film, know what's the better throws to work on, know the real timing of how it is in games.
Besides the orange shoes, what will be something different that fans will notice?
"You'll see a more confident, poised quarterback who looks like he's been through 13 games and learned a lot,'' he said. "I look forward to playing in front of them.''
You'll also find him at FCA meetings rather than the police blotter or the ESPN crawl. Scheelhaase wears his WWJD bracelet every day, and his best friends away from the team are two Illini wrestlers whom he called FCA brothers. Scheelhaase takes being a role model personally.
"I feel like I can do it for a good cause,'' Scheelhaase said. "I have a good message. I'm a good role model. Those things are important to me. It's only a short span that you're that guy, the big man on campus. If you're using it for something good, that's really important.''
Petrino isn't worried about Scheelhaase being too nice.
"You can be Mr. Nice Guy and still be a tough guy,'' Petrino said. "He's as much of a competitor as you'd ever want on the field. His personality is exactly what you want. He's fiery. He's a leader. He's going to do everything he's got to do to win.''
He's not caught up in the debate over his ability to throw the ball compared to running it.
"I like running the ball,'' he said. "I like throwing the ball. I want to be more of a winner.''
If so, sounds like the Illini are in good hands.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie.
In the record book
How Nathan Scheelhaase ranks all-time among Illini quarterbacks.
Rushing: He ranks second on the career list with 868 yards, trailing only Juice Williams (2,557), and his single-season total broke a school record.
Passing: With 17 TD passes last season, he needs two more to move into the career top 10 list. His 132.0 passing efficiency rating was ninth in a single season.