Patrick Nixon-Youman came to Illinois with great reviews. A small but extremely quick cornerback, he was expected to see early playing time. But spring of his freshman year, he had a pelvic injury that required surgery. Pelvic muscles had torn away from the bone, and his prognosis was not favorable.
He was healthy enough to practice last fall, but he was never at full speed. He wasn't a happy camper, but he kept battling and never gave up. He was near normal this past spring and for Camp Rantoul. But when Terry Hawthorne went out with a stress fracture in his foot, Nixon-Youman didn't replace him.
Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning wasn't sure what to expect at that point.
"Pat's had an interesting month or so. About a month ago, he was probably ready to hang it up. He was pretty disappointed. He wasn't getting much playing time, and he wasn't really ready to get playing time."
"With Steve getting hurt, we really needed somebody to play in that (nickel) package. Pat didn't play as well at Michigan State as we really needed him to. But he somehow gained some confidence, and he made some really nice plays in the Indiana game. He wasn't perfect, but he made some tackles. I think Pat's confidence is growing, and he'll hopefully get better."
The Illini gained momentum toward a big victory over Indiana when Nixon-Youman broke in front of an IU receiver on the sideline, intercepted the pass and sped 68 yards to paydirt. It was redemption for an athlete who needed something good to happen. He agreed it took the weight of the world off his shoulders.
"It does. It's a great feeling. I feel like I did something that helped the team. I wanted to be in the mix where I can help my team win, help it go to the next level.
"My confidence was up before, but I just take it a game at a time. Wait my turn, and today it came. I let the game come to me. I just read my keys and did what I have to do."
Nixon-Youman, who's migraine headaches have also limited practice time, feels healthy now. But the touchdown helps him stop worrying about reinjury.
"I just kind of put it behind me and moved forward. Success makes it easier to forget about it."
He agrees it took a long time to reach this point.
"Yeah it did. But I stuck with it, and my coaches stayed on me and made sure I rehabbed. I did everything to the best of my ability, and I'm back out here going full throttle."
The 5'-10", 175 pounder used the time wisely, improving his strength and weight.
"Yeah I have. I think I've gained 10 to 11 pounds. My strength numbers are very much higher. It helps me at my position, and it helps me with my surgery. I enjoy it, and I'm glad I gained it. It gives me confidence. It makes me feel I can compete a little bit out there."
Due to depth concerns, he was asked to learn both the field corner and boundary corner.
"I'm comfortable with it. It took me a little while to figure out the boundary position. But Coach Vic stayed on me, made sure I did it right. Now I've just got to keep improving every day."
What parts of his game need improvement?
"Just my technique. Coach Vic stays on me every day about it. My man technique, my 2 technique, make sure I keep improving every day. I try to remember the things he tells me to do."
When Justin Green moved from running back, the Jacksonville, Florida, product was needed for another task: teacher.
"Yeah, and I don't mind doing it. I think it helps me to understand and learn the defense a little bit better. I kind of like to take on a teaching role. Now when I'm out there, all I need to do is react now."
Nixon-Youman feels the whole team benefitted from the coaching changes.
"It's been a great help to us. I love our new coaches. They push us to our limits. They set the standards high, and they expect us to accept the challenge. I like it."
He even likes how intense Koenning is on the field.
"That's what we need, someone who is serious and will push us through. He treats us like his kids, and I take that as a positive."
More than anything, Nixon-Youman is pleased with the season so far and the unity of the team.
"I think things are going great. Everybody's bonded with each other. The offense has bonded with the defense, the defense has bonded with the offense. Every team has its ups and downs, but through it all we stick together."