Illinois makes right call with Scheelhaase

No one who spent time around the Illinois Fighting Illini this spring will be surprised by today's announcement that Nathan Scheelhaase will enter the season as the team's starting quarterback.

Scheelhaase clearly separated himself from teammates Jacob Charest and Chandler Whitmer during spring ball. Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino gushed about the redshirt freshman when we visited in late April. All that remained was an official announcement, which came a day after head coach Ron Zook returned from his USO tour to visit troops.

“Following spring ball, our coaching staff had some time to review the quarterback situation and felt Nathan proved himself as a leader both on and off the field,” Zook said in a statement. “He showed the ability to run coach Petrino’s offense at a high level, and we thought it was important to establish Nathan as a team leader entering summer workouts."

There was really no need for Illinois to wait any longer, especially as it enters a pivotal season where roles need to be defined as quickly as possible. Scheelhaase has no game experience and will endure some growing pains this fall, but he brings a leader's mentality and a good skill set to the table.

I have questions about his passing ability and durability -- Scheelhaase is listed at 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds, but that seems a bit generous -- but his attitude, athleticism and maturity are immediately recognizable and impressive. Not every quarterback who runs Petrino's offense needs to look like Ryan Mallett, and the folks at Illinois hope Scheelhaase can eventually resemble former Louisville star Stefan LeFors.

"He's a lot like Stefan," Petrino said. "Very similar players. He's faster than Stefan was, and he's a redshirt freshman. Stefan didn't play until his redshirt junior year. You just see things they do, the way [Scheelhaase] moves around on the play-action, a lot of the plays he does well were plays that Stefan does well, so a lot of that stuff really reminds you of him."

Again, don't expect mistake-free football from Scheelhaase, who threw two interceptions and took three sacks in Illinois' spring game. When you have a totally new offense and a quarterback with no game experience, there will be some bumps along the way. Illinois will need the guys around Scheelhaase, namely running back Mikel LeShoure, to step up their play.

Time is of the essence for an Illinois team and a coaching staff that must win in 2010, so there was no need to delay this decision any longer.