Illini Secondary Developing With Gillhamer

The Fighting Illini secondary lacked depth last season. Injuries are now healed, and replacements gained valuable experience. The secondary has talent and depth, and it has a coach who has worked with professional defensive backs and knows what he is doing. It could be an excellent combination going into the 2011 season.

New secondary coach Mike Gillhamer got a late start in his new job at Illinois, and he had to do some scrambling.

"It's quick. Where I came from, we were locked in room for 12 hours watching film. Now you've got to check academics, you have recruiting. But I've really tried to maintain my focus on the group we have right here now. Get them better."

Upperclassmen who knew the Illini defense helped him with the adjustment.

"I tell you what, they've done a great job with the defense. When I first got here, they were helping me with a lot of checks and everything we were doing. I needed to catch up with them. There is some continuity there."

Gillhamer also had to learn about his personnel.

"I looked at film first, saw who played and who didn't play. But I tried to come in with an open mind and make my own adjustments. I knew we had some talent, so it is what I thought it is. We've still got some work to do though."

Upon conclusion of spring drills, Gillhamer was asked if there is any NFL-level talent in the secondary.

"We have some guys that may have a chance, yeah. It's early to say. We've got good db's here. I think they're definitely Division I guys and can play."

Terry Hawthorne, Justin Green and Tavon Wilson are a good starting point at cornerback.

"I think the corners are doing a real good job. I think they've really bought into our technique. I like them. I think Terry Hawthorne really has a lot of talent. #26 (Green) has a lot of talent.

"#3 (Wilson) has really improved on his technique, and he's really playing a lot better. Those three guys really get it, and we have some backup guys who will be okay also."

Wilson is a corner, but he played safety last year. At this point, he is a jack of all trades.

"Right now he's our boundary corner, but he's our starting nickel too. So that way we get 26 on the field. He's a student of the game. He's smart, so he can handle that."

Corner depth is provided by Jack Ramsey and Miami Thomas.

"Ramsey's getting settled. He's making mistakes right now because of not having the experience that he needs. But he's catching on.

"I think Miami's got his quickness back. Right now, he's got to become a little more disciplined, study the game a little bit more."

Free safety Trulon Henry returns for his senior season, and cat safety Supo Sanni is making a quick recovery after Achilles surgery last fall.

"Trulon's kind of the quarterback back there. He would be a good linebacker, but he's playing well at safety right now. His knowledge of the defense and leadership helps.

"I'm eager to get Supo out there full time. He's doing more and more, but I can't wait to see him more in live situations."

The third safety is letterman Pat Nixon-Youman, who has played corner in the past.

"Right now he is a safety. He's another athlete. He's the backup nickel, so he can do a lot of different things."

Steve Hull has also demonstrated skill at safety, but recurring ankle problems limited his spring reps.

Long-suffering Illini fans often question cornerbacks who play far off the line of scrimmage and appear to leave receivers uncovered. Gillhamer explains how circumstances and defensive strategies dictate alignments.

"We have an alignment for every coverage we have. Whatever we're gonna take away or try to take away. That has to do with the coverage. One thing we're trying to do right now is make sure we have the proper alignments.

"Anytime a quarterback sees a certain coverage, like if we're dropped off, he checks off to a certain play. If we play tighter, he changes to another play. The TV people and others say we're playing too far off, but it has to do with the coverage and what we're trying to take away."

Gillhamer believes his group has potential for a good season.

"We need to keep improving, but the guys have really bought in to what we're trying to teach them. I think it's going well. We see a little light at the end of the tunnel. We just hope it's not a train."

Gillhamer is modest and doesn't brag on himself. Fortunately, his boss has no problem speaking for him.

"I really like what I see," head coach Ron Zook states. "You've got a bunch of guys that can win for you. The thing that's really been fun for me to watch is to watch them watch Coach Gillhamer. I told them, 'Here's a guy that's been coaching your position in the National Football League for the last seven years. If you have aspirations of getting there, he knows how to get you there and what it's gonna take.'

"It's really been fun to watch. He's done a great job with them. He and I coach exactly the same way and think the same things. I like what they're doing right now."

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