CHICAGO — He has quarterbacked the University of Illinois to two bowl victories, but that was neither a Texas Bowl nor Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl championship ring on his left hand Thursday.
As of July 6, Nathan Scheelhaase is a married man, having pledged himself in sickness and in health to his high school sweetheart, Morgan Miller. The ceremony took place in Kansas City and Scheelhaase’s side of the wedding party included Illini teammates Miles Osei (best man) as well as Reilly O’Toole, Ryan Lankford and Steve Hull (groomsmen).
Say what you will about the football career of Scheelhaase, but by the time he’s done at Illinois, he will have digested a full plate of experiences that have included five years of his life, two head coaches, six offensive coordinators, two bowl victories, a bachelor’s degree in communications and a good deal of work toward his master’s degree in recreation, sports and tourism.
“He is the face of the program,” teammate Tim Kynard remarked Thursday at the Big Ten Conference football media day.
Given the state of the program (Illinois begins this season having lost 14 consecutive Big Ten games), some players wouldn’t their face on the book cover of Illini football.
But Scheelhaase has never backed away from any responsibility, and he gladly takes the torch when asked to lead Illinois to surprising success this year.
He is approaching his final season grateful to finally be healthy, and with a sense of urgency to somehow make his career end on a high note.
“You see a bunch of guys before you go through it, but you don’t really understand what being a senior is until you reach that point,” he said. “Then you know exactly what they were feeling, why every single practice and film session is important. It’s knowing this is your last go-around.”
Scheelhaase took a critical lashing last season, blamed as quarterbacks are when the offense fails to find traction.
But his critics were unfair because Scheelhaase was 100 percent healthy for just over half of the season’s opening game, then mustered all the toughness he could to play through pain that would not let him put pressure on his toe.
“I sprained my ankle and my Achillies in the opener and had to come out of that game,” he recalled. “I knew it was pretty serious. I missed the next two weeks and couldn’t go up on my toe at all.
“From them on I played on something that felt like a peg leg.”
As the season wore on, he developed a knee problem, “and I knew I’d never get back to 100 percent.”
But Scheelhaase is finally healthy again and he hopes he can latch on to new coordinator Bill Cubit’s fast-moving offense and build on career statistics that include 5,296 yards, 34 touchdown passes, 24 interceptions and a 61 percent completion percentage.
Cubit could be a perfect match for Scheelhaase, who won’t often be asked to throw the ball deep downfield (not his strength) but will be asked to make quick, precise throws.
“What I’ve worked on since last season is getting comfortable in coach Cubit’s offense,” he said. “That means getting the ball out of my hands quicker. He has changed where I hold the ball.
“For the offense in general, he wants us to play faster and be more on the attack. He wants us to move quickly in and out of personnel groups.
“That sounds easy, but everyone has to do things differently. Receivers have to catch the ball and quickly throw it to the ref. There’s no time to point to the crowd or wave to mom and dad. We have to get up and be ready for the next play and that’s a totally different mindset.”
There are times when Scheelhaase wishes he had a broom to sweep out all the obsolete mindsets from his past.
Mike Locksley was the offensive coordinator when he was recruited to Illinois. But by the time Scheelhaase took the field, Mike Schultz was the coordinator. He lasted one season before Paul Petrino reshaped Scheelhaase for two years.
Then Tim Beckman brought in co-coordinators, Chris Beatty and Bill Gonzales, who also lasted just one season. And while Scheelhaase maintains a close relationship with Beatty, he and Cubit seem to have developed a trust.
Scheelhaase is highly respected on this team for his leadership, toughness and what teammates say is the consistency of his friendship.
“We arrived in the same recruiting class and I believed in him right away,” defensive end Kynard said. “I still do. He’s been through the fire — good and bad. But he’s won us two bowl games and he portrays a great image for our program, on and off the field.”
Scheelhaase finds two new faces in the quarterback room nowadays. One is freshman Aaron Bailey. The other is Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt.
Scheelhaase has received both with a warm welcome.
“Aaron is one of the most genuine people I’ve been around,” Scheelhaase said. “He’s someone you want to be around because of his kindness and his faith. He’s an amazing guy.
“Wes has been a great addition, too. I’ve been lucky to have a quarterback room in which I enjoy everyone in there. I don’t think that’s something every university has.”
Beckman said he’s anxious to see how marriage affects Scheelhaase, whether it brings a new layer of perspective to his mature team leader.
“It’s a new chapter of his life, and I’m glad to be able to see it,” Beckman said.
Scheelhaase is curious, too.
“There’s a peace in having that kind of support and that’s important in an athlete’s life,” he said. “It could be a phone call, a Skype date, just always staying in touch. Having her right there in my life is huge for me every day and night.”