Terry Hawthorne was expected to be the best cornerback on the Illinois football team this fall, until injury delayed his 2010 debut. He has now played briefly in the Penn State and Michigan State games and may be ready to start again against Indiana Saturday.
"I'm feeling pretty good," Hawthorne said after practice Monday. "It's not really too much of a big deal. It's probably about 90%. I'm putting the work in to get it back to 100%."
Any injury requires time not only to heal but also to get back in football shape. And it sometimes requires relearning the play book. While Hawthorne is being reacclimated slowly to prevent reinjury, he doesn't feel he has lost anything for his cornerback position.
"I don't think I lost nothing in terms of focus. I was still in the film room watching film, still in meetings with my position."
Hawthorne's speed and playmaking ability have been missed, although the Illini defense has performed far beyond expectations without him. But Hawthorne seems to have an extra burst he can use when needed. Saving a touchdown last year against Michigan by running down a speedy receiver is an example. If he is near 100%, he will definitely help this season despite the injury.
Illinois head coach Ron Zook paid him a great compliment recently, confirming his special athleticism.
"He's really become a gym rat, and he's shown the coaches he wants to become a great player. You all know he's very talented. When we were talking about personnel, Vic (Koenning) asked how fast he was. I really don't know, he's as fast as he needs to be. He's like Vontae (Davis) was."
Hawthorne was a receiver as an entering freshman, and he practiced at that position the first two weeks of Camp Rantoul while a surgically repaired hand was healing. To get on the field, he agreed to switch to cornerback. However, he didn't have the luxury of fall camp at his new spot.
"The biggest time you learn a position is camp," Zook explains. "It's hard to get a late start. But he picked it up and got better. Now that he's had a whole camp to go through it, he has a chance to be a heck of a player. I think he's settled in to playing defensive back and feels he has an opportunity to be an impact player there."
Hawthorne likes the defense installed by Koenning.
"I think the defense is coming along real good. When we first got Coach Koenning in the spring, we started looking at the playbook, getting everything down pat. We came out ready. Everybody on the defense is liking the defense we're running right now."
And while he hasn't been a major contributor yet, he feels a part of the upward spiral the defense appears to be on at this time.
"It makes us feel a whole lot better. Everybody on the defense likes the coaches and likes the defense that we're running. We like the way they're pushing us in practices."
The 6'-0", 185 pounder was a star safety in high school. Would he prefer that position?
"In high school I preferred safety, but now I prefer corner."
He was also a great punt and kick returner at East St. Louis, and Zook planned to use him at both spots this season prior to his injury. He may eventually get that chance this year, along with the punt block team, but first things first.
"I'm basically not worrying about that right now. I'm just trying to worry about the corner spot and getting back healthy."
The Illini defense has gained a great deal of respect from fans in recent weeks for its improved play. Stopping the powerful Michigan State running attack for less than 100 yards was a true accomplishment. But Illini defenders took the loss hard and wish to use it as a reminder for better play this week and beyond.
"We've just got to come out and finish strong the rest of the season. We're gonna bounce back even stronger."