Tavon Wilson expected to play boundary cornerback for Illinois this year. He was the team's most experienced corner and a team leader in his third year. But the loss of two potential safety starters just before the opener with Missouri forced Illini coaches to move Wilson to safety. He did a great job, but his head was spinning.
The Illini got a few days off after the Fresno State to heal wounds and return refreshed for practices leading to the Texas Bowl. Wilson says the time off was essential for his peace of mind as well as his body.
"We got some time off to get our bodies back to the way they're supposed to be. I feel like it helped me mentally more than physically because of the position change. I really needed the time to sit back and think about some things."
Wilson appeared to make a seamless transition from corner to safety and played well enough to disguise his lack of knowledge and experience at the position.
"I've always had a great understanding of how the defense works. But I didn't always have a great understanding of how to play the free safety position. It's a different mindset, and you approach the game differently."
Defensive backs are under duress as they are the back line of the defense. If they miss an assignment, it is a touchdown. Add the pressure of learning a new position and calling out alignments for the entire backfield, and you have constant stress. And since there was an absence of experienced depth, having to play every down without rest wore down both body and mind.
"Most definitely it did. We don't have a capable backup the coaches feel like can go in and play, so I ended up playing more plays than anyone else because of the situation we had at the beginning of the year. It wore me out more mentally than physically."
Fortunately Wilson survived. Now after some time to reflect, he has a new outlook as he prepares for Baylor and the Texas Bowl.
"It has definitely helped to rejuvenate me, but it also helps you look back at the things you've done wrong and the things you've done right. You try to put all the positives together and go forth from there.
"It's kind of all coming together for me now. The position was new for me. I'm still learning things, putting things together. But it's coming together a lot easier for me than it was before."
Hopefully the entire Illinois defense can make a new start with the bowl game. Impressive through the first two-thirds of the season, Illini defenders wore down and lost focus. Wilson believes he and his teammates are reawakening the traits that helped them early in the season.
"We realize when we were running around outside having fun, that's when we were best. It's a thin line between being average and being real good. We're just trying to be electric all the time."
Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning used constructive punishment in spring and fall drills to eliminate mistakes and encourage swarming to the ball. That produced results, but Wilson believes the team must get back to what he believes helped it most the first few games.
"I think at the beginning of the year we were more player-driven. That's why we were as good as we were. We're trying to get back to that."
Baylor and quarterback Robert Griffin III pose a major challenge for Wilson and the defense.
"They're a pretty good offense. We've faced some pretty good offenses, but their quarterback can do a lot with his feet and his arm. We've just got to concentrate on us and do the things that we're supposed to do. Then everything takes care of itself."
Griffin is an outstanding passer, but it is the versatility provided by his blazing speed and the running of Jay Finley that make the Bears so potent. Balanced teams are hardest to defend.
"They're one of those types of teams. But if we focus on the things we have to focus on, we feel like we can be pretty good. We feel like we didn't do very well against versatile teams, for whatever reason, so we've just got to get going on that."
This is Wilson's first bowl game, and he is looking forward to it.
"It's exciting to be playing this time of year. It's definitely a new experience for me. I've never played football this long, even in high school when we went to the championship. It's weird but exciting."