Supo Sanni expected to be a leader for Illinois at safety last fall, but that was not to be. He sat out all last season after surgery to repair his Achilles tendon. He retained his year of eligibility but couldn't help the team in a time of need.
"The hardest part of going through rehab is watching my teammates on the field," Sanni admits. "Knowing I could have been out there helping. Unfortunately injuries happen, and I was stuck with that. But through the rehab stage, I'm an uplifting guy. I don't wear my emotions on my sleeve."
The Illini had minimal depth in the secondary anyway, and the loss of Sanni made it worse. Fourth quarters were especially tiring for remaining players. At those times, Sanni would have given anything to be out there.
"Exactly. That was a main component because me going down, we were limited at that position. We had to bring some guys over from offense and make some changes. But it worked out for the best."
Illini coach Ron Zook was surprised by the nature of Sanni's injury but pleased with his healing progress.
"I think he's a little ahead of schedule compared with where they thought he might be. I've never dealt with an Achilles tear before. As Dr. (Robert) Gurtler told me, it's not an injury that normally happens in younger men. But he seems to be doing well, other than it's been awhile since he's had those kind of movements."
Little by little, Sanni took more reps in practice this spring. He started slowly, but by the end of spring he was full go. Zook liked what he saw.
"Obviously he's rusty because he missed the whole fall. But he's a big body and a pretty looking thing."
Sanni is pleased with his progress.
"I feel real good. I'm eight full months from the surgery, and full recovery is about 8 months to a year. So I'm up to scale."
He's nearly full strength now, but the confusion over recovery time made rehabilitation difficult.
"It's really peculiar. Everybody I asked said they didn't really know. That was the hardest part. Doing rehab isn't hard for me because I'm a hard worker. Just try to get it done and get back on the field as quickly as possible."
The 6'-3", 220 pounder is grateful to be playing the game he loves again.
"It feels so good to get back with my teammates, my family. The camaraderie we have here, I've been with these guys for four years."
After a winning season and bowl win, Sanni sees a big difference in confidence level and motivation going into 2011.
"As a team, everybody is so accountable for wrongdoings. We have kids coming in to watch film and doing the extra stuff to be a better team."
He feels the defense will be improved after working with defensive coordinator Vic Koenning for a year.
"We play so much different. We know the defense. People are coming to understand the different components of the defense. Our MIKE linebackers are learning what the safeties are doing. We just have this aura that we want to do good, and that's how we're gonna be.
"When Coach Vic came in, he had high expectations for us. For us to believe that, with him telling us before we actually believed that, was big. We just improved day by day, and now we're here where we are now with a year under our belt and the experience that we got. We just feel like this is our time."
The Communications major shows no trace of boastfulness when he anticipates the upcoming season.
"People know that this is our year. So we're just doing everything we can to make sure of it."
And hopefully Sanni will finally be able to contribute to that success.