When I look at the Illini program, I see
PRIDE, I SEE POWER a team that has more than a little bit hope. Whereas Indiana and Minnesota might as well be called Doom and Gloom, respectively, Illinois has shown glimpses of competence and, better yet, occasional bouts of exceptional play. Last year's 6-0 start was somewhat of a mirage, yes, but I don't think it should be dismissed completely. Illinois can be good--i.e. a legitimate contender in the Leaders division--if a few things happen. A couple of those things may take at least a couple of years to take hold, nameyly the establishment of new HC/former MACtionator Tim Beckmann's offense and the recruitment of skill position talent. The former could apply to nearly every instance of coaching turnover, but the latter is a little more worrisome for the Illini, whom have churned out a steady supply of dangerous skill players in recent years. Pierre Thomas, Rashard Mendenhall, A.J. Jenkins, Arrelious Benn, and Mikel Leshoure, just to name a few. That is a list that even Michigan or Ohio State would be proud of. Zook can recruit, but you knew that.
Unfortunately for Illinois, the level of talent at the skill player positions was not nearly as high as its been in the past under Zook. A.J. Jenkins was the only real playmaker on the outside last season. He amassed 1,276 yards and 8 touchdowns on 90 receptions, certainly an impressive stat line. However, Nathan Scheelhaase didn't exactly have too many other options, and by the way he locked onto Jenkins time and time again a la Henne and Braylon circa 2004, those stats might be slightly inflated.
Scheelhaase was the Illini's leading rusher in 2011, which might not be a bad thing if he was a 1,000 yard rusher and/or maintained YPC of greater than 4.0. Again, things were a little grim here, as Scheelhaase ran for 624 yards (3.3 YPC), with Jason Ford, the team's second-most productive runner, pitching in an even 600 on 3.9 YPC. Anybody that has seen Scheelhaase will tell you that he's clearly no Denard (and maybe not even whomever occupies the next rung on the ladder of mobile quarterbacks) but he can definitely make plays when called upon. Yes, Michigan's defense was historically atrocious in 2010, but the Illini scored 65 for a reason: Scheelhaase can play. At the same time, leading the team in carries while barely contributing more than three yards a pop is: a) not very good and b) indicative of a serious dearth of options, offensively.
The thing is, I'm not sure that changes this season unless one of the true and/or redshirt freshmen can provide a playmaking spark, allowing Scheelhaase to maybe not get crushed so many times a game by hulking Big Ten linebackers. I'm sure Mr. Scheelhaase would like that.
So, to recap: Scheelhaase is approximately the same weight as Denard despite being at least a couple of inches taller (ESPN lists the former at 6'3'' and the latter at 6'1'', which...is not accurate). He's mobile but not exactly earth-shatteringly so, and clearly is not an above average passer at this point in his career. There are some parallels to Denard (good runner, passing leaves room to be desired), but considering where Beckman came from, a comparison to Austin Dantin/Terrance Owens is far more apt, particularly when thinking about the offense in the near future. Due to the general lack of talent around Scheelhaase, whether Illinois has another disappointing season or comes in for 8+ wins solely depends upon whether or not he can take the next step as a junior.
*Sorry about that. I'll show myself out now.
The Illini somewhat secretly had a very good defense in 2011, a point that was overshadowed by the fact that Illinois completely collapsed down the stretch. Still, look at the schedule and you'll find that the greatest point total Illinois gave up during that 6-game losing streak (when Illinois collapsed like a flan in a cupboard, as Eddie Izzard would say) was 31 against Michigan. Yeah, Michigan left some points like they were little Tupperware containers of takeout that could be placed in the fridge and eaten later, but that's kind of not how football works. 31 points is 31 points. If that's a bad defensive effort for you, especially against a team that boasts Denard Robinson, you're probably pretty good defensively.
The Illini were top 10 in total defense, 15th in scoring defense, and 6th in sacks. Although Whitney Mercilus will be mercilessly destroying NFL linemen this season, Illinois still returns a majority of its defense. Illinois has to break in a new DC in Tim Banks, but all things considered this should be another quality defense for Illinois.
This is all to say that the Illinois offense would need to be catastrophically bad to lose a significant number of its games. Frankly, that's what it was throughout the Mr. Hyde portion of the 2011 season. Here are some points of concern, points of optimism, and general rambling regarding Scheelhaase, whom I think will possibly be one of the most important players in the Big Ten this season:
Say what you will about Beckman's commitment to defense, but it's obvious that he will be a good thing for Scheelhaase. If you chose to partake in the 2011 Tuesday night slate of MACtion, odds are you saw Toledo quite a bit, and boy could they score. Even more impressively, the Rockets very nearly pulled off the upset in Columbus, as Eric Page zipped around Buckeye defenders as if he were an actual rocket. Illinois might not have an Eric Page on the roster right now, but the Illini do have some young talent to work with.
Former Class of 2011 4-star recruit Jon Davis will have to continue to emerge as a primary target for Scheelhaase. As a freshman tight end last season, Davis reeled in 187 yards on 22 receptions (and 1 touchdown), nearly all of which he accomplished throughout the second half of the season. At 6-3 230, Davis is quite the athlete, and might as well be considered the hybrid WR/TE type that is so in vogue these days. Davis was a Third-Team Freshman All-American in 2011, so one would figure that expectations are sky high for him going forward. Having a guy like Davis will be crucial for the times that Scheelhaase finds himself running for his life, something that is a fairly regular occurrence: Illinois gave up 36 sacks last year, putting them right behind football powerhouse Ole Miss in the sacks allowed rankings. Combine that with a relatively ineffective traditional running game (i.e. via actual tailbacks) and it's pretty obvious that Scheelhaase won't get much time to throw or sizable holes through which to run. Basically, this all boils down to MAKE PLAYS.
By the numbers, Scheelhaase did get a little bit better in 2011: his yardage, completion percentage, and yards per attempt all went up a little bit, and his INTs remained constant at 8. The only thing that decreased was TDs, which dropped from 17 in 2010 to 13 in 2011.
The real concern, however, is the fact that his effectiveness in the ground game decreased from his debut season to last year. He tallied 5 TDs and 868 yards on 4.7 YPC in 2010, only to see those numbers drop to 624 yards and 3.3 YPC (he did have one more TD, though). Obviously, losing Mikel Leshoure to the NFL has a lot to do with this, as Jason Ford simply did not get it done. Once upon a time, even Juice Williams was an effective quarterback when paired with an NFL back. Unless sophomore Donovonn Young can improve upon his solid debut season (87 carries, 451 yards, 6 TDs), it's going to be all eyez on Scheelhaase in the ground game. This could go one of three way: 1) swimmingly, to the tune of 800-1,100 yards b) mostly poorly, i.e. last year or c) injury due to overwork. Scheelhaase has made it through two full seasons without getting ground into dust, so it's obvious that he's a tough guy despite not exactly being built like Devin Gardner. However, generic injury concerns do exist if Illinois cannot establish a second running threat early on in the season.
Coming back around to Coach Beckman, I think that the coaching change is the best thing that could have happened to Scheelhaase. Toledo successfully made a two-QB system work last season, playing both Terrance Owens and Austin Dantin en route to an 8-4 season that would have ended in a MAC championship appearance if not for a 63-60 loss against NIU. While most will tell you that Owens is the "mobile/running" guy and Dantin is the "passing guy," things weren't that cut and dry. Both guys could run and pass. Despite his mobility and general athletic ability, Owens was far from a mere "running quarterback": he completed 72% of his passes in 2011, good for 2,022 yards, 18 TDs, and a mere 3 INTs. Owens was 6th in the entire nation in passing efficiency (and first in the MAC).
That is outrageously good. At 6'4'' 180, Owens is a similarly lanky running type, and his arm is probably comparable to Scheelhaase's. Austin Dantin is not really a good comparison for Scheelhaase, but Dantin's success last year speaks to Beckman's ability to coach and deploy not one but two quarterbacks effectively. After coaching in the MAC, Beckman is used to not necessarily having top notch talent on the line, which is good because that will be the case at Illinois this year. Illinois had zero offensive linemen on the first two All-Big Ten teams, while their lone Honorable Mention, Jeff Allen, was a 4-year starter, so...it's not like he was an unknown entity.
With the strength of competition caveat aside, it's obvious that Beckman can coach offense. Whether he can do it as successfully in the Big Ten is another story entirely (as we all know). However, if I'm an Illinois fan, I'm pretty excited about what 2012 holds in store for Nathan Scheelhaase. I'd be watching Terrance Owens highlights and oohing and aahing at that 72% completion percentage and 18:3 TD to INT ratio and wondering if Scheelhaase can replicate those kinds of numbers. I think that that's probably an unlikely goal for this year, but I do think that Scheelhaase will be much better in 2012 after a sophomore season that was not really that much better than his freshman season.
There will likely be a few growing pains early on, but the defense should be able to carry Illinois throughout the month of September before heading to Madison and Ann Arbor in consecutive weeks. After that, I think Scheelhaase should begin to show us what he can really do. The concept of an Illinois team with a tough defense and an offense that even only somewhat approaches the feverish Phillip Roth-esque--name droppin' WHAT--productivity of the 2011 Toledo offense is a scary one indeed for the traditional powers in the conference.