CHAMPAIGN - The curtain opened on Day 1 of "The Grand Experiment" Tuesday, and it was hard to know where to look. Players or coaches? Coaches or players?

As the University of Illinois tries to jump-start its football fortunes with an influx of six new assistant coaches, it was hard not to notice new offensive coordinator Paul Petrino on the first day of spring practice.

If energy and enthusiasm can win football games, Illinois has hired a winner in Petrino, who arrives from Arkansas and charges relentlessly around the field with hands clapping and lips flapping.

"Good job!" Petrino shouted as he raced toward a receiver. "There you go! Nice job! Yeah!"

Petrino was in constant motion and not just because he wore shorts on a nice day that quickly turned into a cool, breezy night.

"If you stay moving, you don't get cold," he would joke later.

As Illinois tries to rebound from a 3-9 season, Petrino is riding herd over the one position battle that is sure to be front-and-center between now and the end of spring drills on April 24.

"The quarterback situation is the one thing people are going to ask about every day, and me also," said coach Ron Zook, who was watching his six new assistants in action for the first time. "In this day and age, you have to have a guy who is the trigger."

Starting out, it's a three-player race between Jacob Charest, the one player with experience, redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase and true freshman Chandler Whitmer.

Each had their moments Tuesday, but it's clear this race started months ago when Petrino was hired and anyone wanting the job was required to study the playbook, ask questions and take the field Tuesday ready to go.

The results, Petrino, were encouraging but well short of decisive.

"I want them to go out and compete and see who is the guy, who can get it done when the pressure is on them," said Petrino, who is making judgments every day.

But Zook and Petrino each said they don't care how quickly the battle is settled. If they can name a starter this spring, they will. If not, they'll be patient.

"If someone just runs away with it, I think you (name the starter this spring)," Petrino said. "If not, there's no problem letting them work through the summer. But hopefully by the end of spring, somebody takes the lead."

Scheelhaase, who redshirted last season, made it clear he wants the job.

"Everybody in Champaign knows there is a quarterback competition," said Scheelhaase, who came to Illinois from Kansas City back when the Illini were targeting option quarterbacks. "I'm going to do my best to show what I can this spring.

"If they make a decision this spring, they do. If it's not until Rantoul or the night before the Missouri game, it doesn't matter. We just have to be prepared each and every day."

Whitmer was a pleasant surprise Tuesday. The freshman is a little short at 5-foot-11, but showed a big arm.

Petrino, of course, was watching with a careful eye.

"Whitmer is probably the purest thrower," Petrino said. "He has a really nice throwing motion, throws it hard, more of the pure type drop-back passer."

When he was hired, Petrino said his motto was "FTS," which translates to "feed the studs." In other words, get the ball into the hands of your playmakers.

After practice, he said the first-day studs were wide receivers Jarred Fayson and A.J. Jenkins, as well as running back Mikel Leshoure.

Leshoure is carrying 226 pounds and looks leaner and quicker than he did a year ago, when he led the Il-lini in rushing.

"That's the guy you're going to hand the ball to," said Petrino, who has been talking about Leshoure since the day he was hired.

Petrino knows Leshoure could be the key player on the offense. If the Illini can run the football, pressure will be lifted from the quarterback, whoever it turns out to be.

"If you get the running game going, it makes it easier on everything," Petrino said. "It opens up your play action."

Director of Athletics Ron Guenther could have changed head coaches after last season but opted instead to keep the coach and change virtually everyone around him.

We won't know until the fall whether this experiment was a good idea or a gamble gone bad.

All we know after Tuesday is that the experiment is underway, and new additions like Paul Petrino are charging ahead with enthusiasm.

Wax leaving

There was a bit of a stunner within the University of Illinois athletic department Tuesday when Shawn Wax, the senior associate athletic director, told folks he would be leaving.

Wax, a former Illini football player, said he has some job opportunities in the works, but was not prepared to announce them yet. His wife, Illini softball coach Terri Sullivan, is currently on maternity leave. They recently had their first child.|421-7983

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