Nathan Scheelhaase is an atypical rookie quarterback. A life-long student of the game, the former Kansas City Rockhurst star was born to be a quarterback and has embraced the awesome responsibilities of the position.
When Illinois offensive players mention team leaders, more often than not the first name is Scheelhaase despite his youthfulness and inexperience. When one walks past the film room at all hours of the day or night, the person most likely to be seen is Scheelhaase.
Perhaps his background helps explain his maturity and understanding of the game. His father Nate Creer was a four-year letterman at Iowa and has worked with him throughout his life. He and his wife LouAnn Scheelhaase moved to Champaign to be close to their son. Nate attends every Illini practice, and his wife joins him when able.
"I like it, I like it for sure," Scheelhaase admits. "He's been around since Day 1. He's been there coaching me. He probably had the best attendance in high school, watching me at practice.
"I love it. My dad is probably my biggest fan and biggest critic. So it's always good to have him out there. It's always fun to hear his point of view. I love seeing him and my mom out here."
Scheelhaase is eager for his dad's critique after practice.
"I ask him how the practices went. He tells me what he saw. He was fortunate enough to play in a Rose Bowl. His senior year they played in the '86 Rose Bowl against UCLA. Man, that's a goal I want to shoot for. Maybe we can get a win there.
"I've watched a ton of his film from playing in Michigan, all different things. He knows this conference as good as anyone. It's fun now that I'm going through the same things. He remembers going to Ohio State. So it's kind of fun to talk about those things."
It is not totally uncommon for a son to follow dad's footsteps. He would like nothing better.
"The Rose Bowl challenge is out there. I think they went to a bowl every year he was there. That's a challenge in itself. He has some big shoes to fill for sure in this conference, and I hope to do those things. If we can have the success he had in his college career, it will be pretty exciting."
The family also emphasizes academics to their young prodigy.
"Academics was a big thing growing up. Both of my parents always stressed it was something that was gonna be important. No matter, the best of the best, you can't play football forever.
"I've been blessed with an opportunity. I went to a great high school that taught me a lot. I was prepared coming into college. I'm blessed again going to a great university like Illinois.
"I didn't even know this the first time I heard about Illinois, but getting a degree from Illinois is big-time in the business world. So if I can play football and get a free education, it's an opportunity I can't pass up. I was a business major, but I switched to communications.
"Hopefully, I'll be able to finish that in 3 and 1/2 years and then get a Masters. Last semester I had one B and three A's. The B was in French. I didn't take four years of Spanish in high school, so I've got to take three years of French."
Scheelhaase is supremely relaxed and confident in his abilities. It seems nothing flusters him, but he admits to some nervousness early in spring ball.
"I guess there was some nerves. Gaining confidence was a big thing. Confidence is a key. If you're confident in what you're doing, if you're confident in the reads you're making, then you're not gonna have feet that are jumping around. You're gonna make your right reads. You're gonna make the plays you need to make. That's the biggest difference I see between day 1 and now."
Scheelhaase can see definite growth since the beginning of spring ball, with himself and the team.
"I know I've come a long way. Just watching those first two days after being through spring, it's amazing to see the difference. And that's with everyone, the minds clicking, how far we've come. It's exciting to know that I've made that much development in 15 days.
"Now I have all summer and all Camp Rantoul to prepare for the Missouri game. So I'm really excited about the potential I have to get better all season."
Nothing seems to shake Scheelhaase. Even taking off a red shirt and going live against the defense in practice was a joy for him.
"I actually wish we went without the red shirts a little bit more. I had a blast. I love being out here."
He has benefitted from the knowledge and experience of quarterback coach Jeff Brohm.
"He’s good with the technique. He corrects my mistakes right away. He’s good at telling us what we did wrong with our reads and what we should have done
"He’s worked with good quarterbacks, and he’s played at the highest levels. He’ll get after it once in a while, but he’s pretty calm. He’s a heck of a coach. I’ve learned a lot since he was hired."
Scheelhaase continues to work on timing with his receivers. And he is bonding with them.
"I enjoy being in the locker room with those guys. They’re all good guys, and they all love to play football. We’re all after one goal and we’re coming together. We’ve got some guys who can do some big things. We’ve got a chance to be good."
He also knows the benefits of befriending his offensive linemen. Twice in the Spring Game he was seen blocking downfield ahead of the running back with the ball. He did it to help his teammates, but he realizes the value of making a positive impression on those who he depends on for protection.
"I just love trying to make plays whenever I can. A key for quarterback is toughness. If I can get out there and make a block for one of my guys, hopefully the offensive line will see it, or that running back will see it and they'll be, 'Yeah, I'm blocking for Nate, he's got my back, so I'm gonna have his back.'
"That's what we've all got to have this year. We've got to be willing to do whatever it takes to get our offense going and get the ball in the endzone."
The offense was sluggish first half of the Spring Game but got its act together.
"We all came out and didn't perform our best that first half. But those things are gonna happen throughout the year. The biggest thing I was excited about was that we all came out and made plays and had a great second half. That's what you've got to do.
"We're not gonna have every game this year be a blowout and come out and score the first five possessions every game. There's gonna be setbacks and turmoil within a game. To be able to bounce back, that's what I felt like we did. We had a couple unlucky plays that didn't go our way, but I just tried to play my best each play I was out there."
New defensive coordinator Vic Koenning didn't make it easy on him. Mixing things up and disguising coverages, Koenning applied a great deal of pressure to the youngster. Scheelhaase saw the challenge as a learning opportunity.
"He’s a good, good coach and a good guy. We have to make different reads each play. We see a lot of different things from each position. He’s making it tough on us, but we’re just trying to learn each and every day."
Scheelhaase has great speed and is an accurate passer. If he has a knock, it is his average arm strength. One concern is when he must throw against a strong wind. Even then, he has advanced understanding of the various situations that might arise.
"That is an important thing. In the warmups every day this year, especially the first week when there were strong winds, when I was warming up I'd always try to go against the wind just to get used to it. The wind can play a factor, especially here in Illinois. You've got to be aware of it, but you can't be thinking of it. You've got to make your throws.
"If you're throwing a fade into the wind, you know it but you're still making your progressions, maybe put a little bit more on the ball. It isn't too big of a deal. I think I would worry less about the wind than what the defense is trying to do.
"If you're throwing the ball right, if you're flipping your wrists right, it isn't gonna cause a lot of problems. There's only a few throws that a real strong wind will make a difference on. Those deep loft ones for example. But a 10 yard out on time, the wind can't play much of a factor unless it's a hurricane or something."
Scheelhaase says all the right things. He is respectful of those who paved the way for him at Illinois. He noted in particular the absence quarterback Juice Williams and receiver Arrelious Benn.
"It's different without those guys. You see their jerseys all over. They did a lot to bring this program up to where it is today.
"Without a Juice Williams type of quarterback here, I don't know if I'd even been looking at Illinois. He kind of opened my eyes to this university. Hopefully, whoever it is this year can carry on that torch that he brought up."
In many ways, Scheelhaase sounds too good to be true. He can pass and run, he is smart and savvy, and he is a mature leader despite his youth. Of course, every opponent will try to knock his block off and force turnovers and mistakes. He will undoubtedly have growing pains.
He knows what to expect, and he is looking forward to it. Asked if there was more pressure after Jacob Charest, the only quarterback with experience, transferred this summer, Scheelhaase denied it. Pressure simply isn't in his vocabulary.
"I don't really feel the pressure. I'm just excited. This is a dream for me. Football is something I've loved since I was a little guy. I'm excited when I get out there. If I was to get in a game this year, there would be a little nerves, that comes with the territory. But I don't feel pressure at all."