LINCOLN — Nathan Scheelhaase was on his fourth offensive coordinator, coming off an injury-plagued season and hardly guaranteed a starting spot heading into his senior year.
And here came Bill Cubit, hired by Tim Beckman to overhaul the Illinois offense, with a whole new system that was going to be shoved down the throat of the Illini quarterback — along with everybody else who was reeling after a 2-10 season.
“We threw a lot at them,” Cubit said. “I threw the whole plate at them. The kids thought it was too much, but I told them, 'You've got to keep up.' I knew it was too much. I just wasn't going to let them know it.”
Scheelhaase was one of those who never backed down last winter and spring, and his acceptance of the challenge has led to the kind of start that has Nebraska's attention as Illinois prepares to visit Lincoln on Saturday.
Scheelhaase came out of September ranked No. 17 nationally with 290.5 yards passing per game and No. 10 in passer efficiency (174.8 rating). His 12 passing touchdowns are second among Big Ten quarterbacks, and his 14.2 yards per completion shows his ability and willingness to go down field.
Not bad for a dual-threat quarterback who was asked to adjust to a pro-style role, and rushed into it as Cubit became his latest mentor.
“You were just trying to keep up,” Scheelhaase said.
Scheelhaase also knew it was a test of sorts. There was a method to what Cubit was doing. A mental game that Scheelhaase was determined to win.
“I kind of knew that's what he was trying to do,” he said. “At the same time, I think he knows you're not going to get everything the first time. But you pick things up as you go along.”
Scheelhaase said the first half of spring practice “wasn't very pretty at all.” It got better as the Illini found some rhythm and carried it into the summer. They started to make it work during parts of the nonconference season, except for some struggles against Washington in a 34-24 loss.
But Cubit knew he was not only installing a new system, he was rebuilding confidence in players like Scheelhaase after Illinois gained fewer yards and scored fewer points than any other Big Ten team in 2012.
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“I think both of us would agree that both of us need to get better,” said Cubit, who was available for the Illinois offensive coordinator job after his eight-year stint as Western Michigan's head coach was terminated last November. “The further he gets, I just keep on getting further.
“Initially it was baby steps, then we said, 'OK, let's crawl. Now let's run. Now let's sprint.' We're probably in the jogging stage right now, getting ready to run.”
That's an interesting way to put it, too, considering that running the football is becoming less and less common for Scheelhaase, who carried for 868 yards as a redshirt freshman in 2010.
But three seasons of physical punishment as a dual-threat quarterback in mostly spread systems made it a little easier for Scheelhaase to buy into what Cubit wanted to do. It also has helped to see Illinois (3-1) score 161 points in its first four games, a school record for this point in a season.
“You're kind of OK with sitting in the pocket and not getting hurt,” Scheelhaase said, laughing. “There's still some designed runs. The coaches are comfortable with me doing that. If it's something we need, we'll use it, but I guess it won't be the first plan of attack.”
Did Cubit think Scheelhaase could make that transition? The veteran coach admits there was at least some apprehension — on both sides.
“I thought we had to change some things,” Cubit said.
The biggest was not only finding out if Scheelhaase could throw the ball down the field, but not be afraid to do it. Cubit said at one point he basically had to tell the quarterback that he didn't care how many interceptions came with it.
“I think right now we're like eighth in the country with passes over 20 yards (22),” Cubit said. “If we would have said that in the spring, I would have been a little surprised.”
But in a system that demands a “smart quarterback,” Cubit said he immediately learned that Scheelhaase would give the Illini the necessary intelligence.
So they fudged with his technique, repaired his mojo and hoped he would buy into one more system before his Illini career was over. Scheelhaase figured it could only get better, though, after he threw eight interceptions and just four touchdown passes the year before.
A little soul-searching helped, too, for the quarterback who also was recruited heavily by Nebraska coming out of Rockhurst High in Kansas City, Mo.
“There's a time where you wonder or evaluate what happened in the past year or what's been going on for your career, and you kind of just take a step back and look at things,” Scheelhaase said. “In that time, you want to establish your 'why' — why you came here, why you grew up wanting to be a college football player — and think back to those things.
“It was a perfect opportunity to do that. And I think as a team we all did that.”
Scheelhaase remembers that flirtation with Nebraska before the 2009 signing period and said his decision came down to Illinois, NU and maybe one other school. He said he enjoyed getting to know Husker coach Bo Pelini and seeing Tom Osborne at the 2008 spring game.
“Any time a kid gets an offer to Nebraska, it's a huge honor,” Scheelhaase said. “There's a lot that came with that. But obviously I made the decision to come to Illinois and it has worked out well.”
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Video: QB Tommy Armstrong talks after practice
Video: Offensive coordinator Tim Beck after practice
Video: The Big Red Today Show, Oct. 1