CHAMPAIGN — As Illinois prepares for its final non-conference football game Saturday, Bill Cubit continues to speak Nathan Scheelhaase’s language.
On Monday, coming off an open weekend and hoping to improve to 3-1 against a winless Miami (Ohio) team, Cubit talked openly about embracing an offense that is unafraid to try for big plays whenever possible.
“I tell Nate all the time,” Cubit said, referring to his senior quarterback, “that if it’s going to be (a decision) between five yards and 20 yards, let’s take the 20.”
That kind of talk makes Scheelhaase smile because it’s proof that his offensive coordinator has confidence in his ability to make those longer throws.
It wasn’t always that way.
Very early in their relationship, Cubit determined Scheelhaase had the smarts to read defenses. Then he became convinced he had more arm strength than doubters were giving him credit for. And then he emboldened his quarterback by instilling confidence and he did that by calling the very plays skeptics and past offensive coaches were reluctant to call.
The result has Illinois on the verge of a 3-1 start and in three games Scheelhaase has already surpassed his 10-game 2012 totals for touchdown passes (7 in 2013, 4 in 2012), 30-plus-yard pass plays, 50-plus-yard pass plays.
In short, Cubit’s genuine confidence in Scheelhaase has given Scheelhaase a genuine confidence in himself.
“Nate has done a nice job,” Cubit said Monday. “You can see we don’t look over to the sideline for calls. Nate’s running it. We teach them defenses and we teach them how to attack defenses.
“It’s helped that we’re really disciplined at the wideout position now with guys being in the right spot at the right time. (Assistant coach) Mike (Bellamy) has done a really good job getting those kids going.”
Cubit and Scheelhaase said Illinois has become better at hitting on big plays because it spends more time practicing big plays.
“We’re going to try to be a big-play offense, and we practice that stuff all the time,” Cubit said. “You will see Nate throwing the ball down field a whole lot more than he has in the past. A lot of that is confidence
“When I first got here people said the wind was a concern, his arm strength was a concern, were the receivers going to be in the right spot? I just said we’re going to get better at it and now, it’s almost like it’s natural for him.
“He was making throws yesterday where you sit and go, ‘Holy smokes, this guy has really improved.’ ”
Scheelhaase said his arm strength has improved through repeatedly throwing deep balls.
“I’ve always said the only way to make your arm stronger is to throw longer balls and practice it consistently. It’s not something you do lifting weights. The more you throw deep, the more comfortable you feel doing it.”
Cubit not only wants Scheelhaase to be looking for the home run ball on routine plays. He also wants him thinking big when a defense risks coming on a blitz.
“That’s what happened against Cincinnati when I hit Josh Ferguson,” Scheelhaase said, recalling a 48-yard first-quarter touchdown strike to his tailback. “Cincinnati blitzed and really came after me. You can beat it by avoiding the sack and avoiding the negative play. But coach Cubit takes it further and says, ‘We’re not just going to try to get a couple of yards. We’re going to try to make them really pay for it.’ ”
And then there is Cubit’s love for exotic formations and unexpected play-calling.
Scheelhaase said Cubit hatches a number of new plays early in the week, walks the offense through the plays, then rehearses them at full speed three or four times to see if they work.
“We run it in practice and if it works well, chances are we’ll use it in a game and hit with it.”
Scheelhaase said when one of Cubit’s trick plays comes into the huddle, it’s time for players to slap on their poker faces. It would be easy, Scheelhaase said, to walk to the line of scrimmage snickering, knowing that some trickery is about to confound an opponent.
“You can’t do that,” he said. “And you can’t have any crazy calls at the line of scrimmage.”
During the recent bye week, the focus was on producing more touchdowns when Illinois drives into the red zone. Illinois has scored touchdowns on six of 11 red zone visits and Cubit wants that ratio to increase.
“The red zone is probably the most disappointing thing,” he said. “That’s where it gets hard. I have to do a better job of game-planning and we have to do a better job of executing down there. That’s the one thing I’d like to see us get better at right now.”