When Illinois hired Bill Cubit as its offensive coordinator in January, he had heard the criticism about the three-year starter he was inheriting at quarterback.
Coming off an injury-affected junior season in which he passed and ran for career-low totals, Nathan Scheelhaase was even facing questions about his passing ability.
Nine games into his senior season, coach and player are crediting a strong offseason and a healthy season for a bounce-back year for Scheelhaase, even if the success hasn’t carried over to Illinois (3-6), which plays host to No. 3 Ohio State on Saturday.
“He’s a pretty good scrambler, but people perceive you as that type of guy and that you can’t throw,” Cubit said. “For us, it’s more about his arm and his mind than it is with his legs. I hear coaches from last year saying (what he’s doing this year) couldn’t happen last year with the way he was throwing the ball, so I just think he’s improved his mechanics so much.”
An ankle injury cost Scheelhaase the second and third games of the 2012 season, and although he played the final nine games, he said he suffered another lower-body injury later and was never fully healthy. He was limited during spring practice, but that did not stop Cubit from working on Scheelhaase’s mechanics.
The result has been greater arm strength and being less apt to take off running. Scheelhaase’s 151 rushing yards are verging on a career low, but his 2,420 passing yards already are a career high for a season.
“It was one of those years last year,” Scheelhaase said. “At some point, I think every athlete goes through one of them no matter what sport they’re playing. I really felt I wasn’t confident out there, and it was frustrating.”
What also helped, coach Tim Beckman said, has been a reworked formation under Cubit, who came to Illinois after being fired as coach of Western Michigan despite a 51-47 record in eight seasons.
“Last year, (Scheelhaase) was not healthy at all,” Beckman said. “He was fighting to try and be the best player that he could be (while) not being 100 percent. Nathan Scheelhasse is 100 percent, and I think the dedication he showed during the summer of building his arm strength continues to impress me with what he’s doing for us.”
Scheelhaase is second in Illinois history in total offense (9,694 yards) and has been hot lately, passing for 771 yards the past two games.
“From what I see out there, the kids really rally around him,” Cubit said. “He competes. The last two games, just seeing him, everything he’s got, I think he’s just a great example for the young kids of how to play the game.”
Although Scheelhaase leads the Big Ten in passing yards per game, Illinois is sixth in total offense, eighth in scoring offense and has lost five straight games, all against Big Ten opponents, after winning two of its first three games.
As a starter, Scheelhaase is 18-27 overall and 6-23 in the Big Ten.
“I’m trying to go out there and do my best to help my team out, but ultimately, the main goal is to win ballgames,” he said. “I never set goals for how many yards I want to run or pass for. You worry about what happens individually at the end of the season, but when you’re in the thick of things, you’re doing everything you can to win ballgames.”