B1G 40: How will Illini replace Nathan Scheelhaase?

B1G 40: How will Illini replace Nathan Scheelhaase?
June 16, 2014, 9:30 am
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Vinnie Duber

B1G 40

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As the dog days of summer arrive, the longing for football becomes all the more intense. Well, we here at CSNChicago.com are here to provide you with a summertime football fix. Over 40 days, CSN's Vinnie Duber will have 40 posts pondering the biggest questions heading into the 2014 Big Ten football season — the B1G 40 questions. Be sure to check out the entire B1G 40 series at csnchicago.com/big-ten.

How will the Illini replace Nathan Scheelhaase?

No matter what you thought of the now-departed Illinois quarterback, the truth is that he was a mainstay under center for the past four seasons in Champaign. Though criticized at times for not being an elite Big Ten QB, he was statistically one of the more impressive offensive playmakers in the league a season ago. No quarterback in the conference averaged more pass yards per game (272.7) or accounted for more offensive yards (3,543) than Scheelhaase. Only three completed more touchdown passes than his 21.

After three up-and-down seasons as the Illini starter, Scheelhaase flourished last season in Bill Cubit's first year as offensive coordinator, one that saw him turn the Illinois offense completely around. Unfortunately, the wins didn't come as easily as the yards did.

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Now it's Cubit's job to find a successor for Scheelhaase, and it's still anybody's guess as to who will emerge victorious from what Cubit called a "spirited" quarterback battle.

The two favorites are senior Reilly O'Toole (out of Wheaton Warrenville South High School) and sophomore Wes Lunt (a Rochester, Ill., native). O'Toole is in his fourth season with the program, and he made it into seven games — even getting a couple starts — during the 2012 season when Scheelhaase battled nagging injuries. Lunt, meanwhile, is a much-hyped transfer from Oklahoma State who threw for 1,108 yards and six touchdowns (seven interceptions) as a freshman in 2012 before making the move to Champaign and sitting out last year. Fans have high hopes for Lunt, but he was overshadowed by O'Toole in the spring game, when O'Toole threw for 126 yards and two touchdowns. Lunt threw for 99 yards in that game and also threw an interception.

There's another candidate, too. Aaron Bailey, a sophomore from Bolingbrook, showed flashes of brilliance last season when Cubit used him as a gimmick quarterback, often lining him up at QB only to utilize his speed to gain big chunks of yardage and even reach the end zone three times.

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Neither Cubit nor head coach Tim Beckman have indicated which of the three has an edge or will be starting when the Illini start their season against Youngstown State on Aug. 30.

Regardless of who wins the job, the offense's focus — both rushing and passing — should be on running back Josh Ferguson, who had a big season in 2013 and could be one of the conference's biggest breakout stars this year. But that might not be the case, as Cubit spent an awful lot of time throwing the ball last season. It leads observers to place even more importance on whoever wins the QB battle, given how important the quarterback was to the Illini offense last season.

That quarterback? Scheelhaase. Replacing him could be much more difficult than some think.