O'Toole finding a place with Illini

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Illinois freshman quarterback Reilly O’Toole is likely to care more about his playing time in the upcoming years, but he’s happy now just to get on the field.

O’Toole has played in three of the first four games of his college career. His first two appearances came in blowouts, but he was given a chance when it mattered in Saturday’s 23-20 win over Western Michigan.

O’Toole spelled sophomore starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase on nine plays in the second half. All nine ended up being passes. He was 3-of-6 for 36 yards. He also picked up two first downs.

“It’s a little different from playing the whole game through,” said O’Toole, who starred at Wheaton Warrenville South and was the ESPNChicago.com 2010 Player of the Year. “It’s fine. Any way I can help the team is fine by me. I think it worked out all right. Whatever they want to do is fine by me.”

It was an up-and-down performance for O’Toole. He came into the game to start the third quarter and immediately hooked up with Evan Wilson for a 20-yard gain. On his second throw, O’Toole nearly threw an interception, which would have likely been returned for a touchdown if the defensive back didn’t drop it.

“It was OK,” said O’Toole, who is 13-of-17 passing for 88 yards and one touchdown this season. “I almost threw a pick-six the second play I was in there. The plays I had completions on, the receivers did a really good job. I had time on every single one of my plays. You can’t argue with that. Hopefully, next time I have more completions.”

There should be plenty of next times. Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino liked being able to give Scheelhaase some rest and add another element to his offense.

“I think it helps take some pressure off where [Scheelhaase] doesn’t have to make every single play on the drive,” Petrino said. “When you’re running the option and you’re throwing the ball, the quarterback has to do it all. If you can bring Reilly in a little bit here and there and let him make some plays, it takes the pressure off Nathan, and it just helps him play better in my belief.”

Neither Scheelhasse nor O’Toole expressed any problems with Petrino’s plan.

“It’s not a threatening thing at all,” Scheelhaase said. “It’s kind of a change-of-a-pace thing. Some things he does really well and helps our offense out. It was good to see him execute and stuff like that because you never know throughout the season.”

How the quarterback situation will unfold in the future is unknown. Scheelhaase could be the starter for two more seasons, and O’Toole has three more years ahead of him.

Wheaton Warrenville South coach Ron Muhitch has been pleased to see O’Toole receive early playing time. Throughout O’Toole’s recruitment, Illinois said it would like to find ways to use him in the offense along with Scheelhaase.

O’Toole gives the offense a bigger arm. Scheelhaase has improved his passing from his freshman season, but still hasn’t been able to deliver the big-pass plays. He was 11 of 15 for 135 yards, one touchdown and one interception against Arizona State, and 14 of 20 for 133 yards, one touchdown and one interception against Western Michigan.

“The type of passing game that Illinois wants to get to is not being realized the first four games they have played,” Muhitch said. “I know they want to get there with [O’Toole.] I know that their coaching staff is very high on him as a thrower.

“Scheelhaase is a talent. They have the best of both worlds down there. I would like to have a quarterback who can run and make plays like him and have a thrower who can throw the ball deep like Reilly.”

Muhitch has kept in touch with his former quarterback. He’s also continued to give him advice.

“I reminded him his junior year he had to compete and had to prove himself against what was a senior quarterback at the time in front of him,” Muhitch said. “I reminded him he’s been through this before, and the competitor inside of him stood tall in that situation.

“He got my message. He said, ‘I know I’ve been here before.’ That’s a good sign.”