Illinois is still looking for the successor to Nathan Scheelhaase at quarterback, and though none of the contenders for the job were present at Big Ten Media Day, that didn’t change the hottest conversation topic surrounding the orange and blue.
“As a coach and as a football team, you see great competition every day,” Illini head coach Tim Beckman said. “I mean, it comes from the weight room. It comes from studying film. It comes from on the field. So you as a football coach, I mean, you love that, because that's what the game of football's all about.”
Wes Lunt, Reilly O’Toole and Aaron Bailey are the candidates to succeed Scheelhaase, who started four straight seasons in Champaign. And though many view Lunt to be the most likely winner of this three-way battle, each brings something different to the table.
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Lunt (Rochester High School) transferred in from Oklahoma State, where he played in six games during the 2012 season. He completed 61.8 percent of his passes for 1,108 yards that year, but threw only six touchdowns compared to seven interceptions. O’Toole (Wheaton Warrenville South High School), who backed up Scheelhaase and got in a few starts in 2012, was the most impressive in the spring game. Bailey (Bolingbrook High School) was used sparingly last season but dazzled at times with his running ability.
What’s certain is that none are Scheelhaase, who led the Big Ten in offense last season.
“How do you replace a four-year starter and a leader?” Beckman said. “I mean, he's an outstanding person. I've been around — I always say this, I've been around football now for 49 years, and there's only one Nathan Scheelhaase that I've ever met, the type of human being he is. So it was a privilege to coach him for two years, but you know somebody has learned from Nathan to be able to step in those shoes and be a leader for this football team.”
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But despite being unable to literally replace Scheelhaase, the Illini are confident that no matter who wins the job, the offense will be in good hands.
“It’s been a little bit different, obviously, when Nate’s been there for three years. Obviously, they all present different things well, do things a little bit different. I know we will have probably the best quarterback situation,” Illini tight end Jon Davis said. “We’ve got three good ones. Wes, big, strong kid, has a really big arm. He’s learned a lot since he’s been here, continues to progress. Reilly, accuracy’s always been his go-to. He’s more athletic than people like to give him credit for, and he showed in the spring game he can really move. And he probably knows the offense just as well as anyone because he’s been here longer. Aaron Bailey, super-athletic kid. He’s a super athlete, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we still had packages built in for him.”
Bailey proved so electric last season — carrying the ball 20 times and scoring on three of them — some question whether Illinois could better utilize him at a different position. Beckman assured he’d stay at quarterback Monday.
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Though Bailey figures to be the first out of the competition — O’Toole and Lunt were heavily featured in the spring game and seem to be the two offensive coordinator Bill Cubit will decide between — coaches continue to attest that the battle will continue to rage on, no matter how many fans have already made up their own minds.
“All three of them are very, very close friends. So there's not the rivalry, that type of thing going on,” Beckman said. “They all want each other to be successful, because they realize if — whoever it might be that will be, that person will make our team better, and how important that is in the game of football.
“It’s going to be a great competition.”