Steve Hull came to Illinois to be a receiver. He practiced there all during his redshirt freshman season, including spring and summer. He was improving and expected to get considerable playing time on offense. Practice observers noted how much quicker and more aggressive he was running routes and battling for receptions.
"Yeah," Hull agrees. "And that's something we were working on every day. Ever since spring I got my mind clear and got more competent with the playbook. I definitely improved."
He played both ways at Cincinnati Sycamore High School, but he had a preference.
"Safety is a different game. You have to be one of those roughneck kids. I have no problem doing that, I can stick my head in there and give my shot. I can hang with the big guys. But I've always played offense my whole life. That's where I'm most comfortable."
Illinois head coach Ron Zook approached him with the option to move to defense after safety Supo Sanni was lost for the year due to injury. He didn't order him to go.
"I think they come here to play," Zook explains. "That's why my big thing is, I never really ask a guy to move unless he wanted to move. You recruit the right kind of guys, you recruit winners. Usually, if they want to play, they'll figure a way to get on the field.
"We didn't tell Steve he had to move, we just asked him if he wanted to move. He was recruited by a lot of people to be a safety, to be a defensive back. He played it in high school and was a pretty good player, but he wanted to start out at receiver. You let them play where they want to be."
Hull sacrificed for the team.
"It's a big change. This is the best way I can help the team out. I'm just gonna take it day by day."
Hull was recruited for defense by Indiana, Wisconsin, and Ohio State. Illinois liked him both as a receiver and safety.
"Coach Zook liked me a lot at safety."
A centerfielder with a nose for the ball at Sycamore, Hull has discovered college defense is a much different game from high school.
"It's a lot more complicated. I've kind of got to get the rust off. It's a lot different playing db than playing wide receiver. You've definitely got to get used to it."
The 6'-2", 180 pounder had developed confidence on offense. He is having to recreate that all-important intangible now.
"Yeah, there's a little bit of that. But I like it back there. I feel comfortable back there. When I get the coverages down and get a feel on what I need to do, I'll pounce on it."
Hull played well in his first college game. Playing a little more than 30 plays, Hull was credited with 7 tackles including four solos.
"It was great. It was definitely a lot of fun."
Of course, it took him awhile to get over the nervousness that is normal for a rookie. He admits the situation was a little overwhelming at first.
"It was. Definitely when we came out of the locker room, coming out of the tunnel and seeing the crowd, hearing them. It definitely had my head spinning at first. But once I got in there and got the first hit in, I think I was buckled down."
Defensive Coordinator and defensive back coach Vic Koenning plans to involve him more against Southern Illinois Saturday. He feels much better prepared now.
"Absolutely. I feel 100% more confident with the speed of the game, the intensity of the game. Now I've got it under my belt, I know what I can do."
Koenning praised Hull for his play in St. Louis.
"Steve filled a gap badly needed. He exceeded a lot of expectations in his first opportunity to come in and show poise, tackle and do the things that we needed him to do."
Most safeties weigh 200 pounds or more to compete effectively against the run as well as the pass. Whether he stays on defense or returns to offense, Hull knows he needs to keep working on his strength and weight.
"I'm gonna try to get bigger no matter what position I play. I'm a little guy, so I definitely have to get a lot bigger."
The Illinois secondary has recorded few interceptions the last couple years. Hull thinks he knows how the Illini can improve on their interception total.
"I think the scouting reports. Once we get a better feel of what's coming at us and where it's coming from, we can react to it a lot quicker and get the interceptions people want."
Some of his teammates believe Hull will stay on defense. Hull is keeping an open mind either way.
"In a perfect world, I'd like to be at receiver. But who knows. If this season goes better than expected I might stay. The door's still open to go both ways or to go back there. It's really a season to season decision."