Steve Hull came to Illinois to play receiver, and he showed considerable promise there. When the Illini lost two starting safeties just before the beginning of the 2010 season, he was moved to defense. Despite little practice time, Hull saw action in the Missouri game and figured to provide depth the rest of the year.
But then he suffered a high ankle sprain that limited his effectiveness the rest of the season. It also prevented him from getting the practice time necessary to learn the position.
Finally injury-free, Hull spent the winter getting in top shape preparing for spring ball. He was ready to go when Illinois closed for spring break the week before the start of spring practice.
Then it happened. Playing in a pickup basketball game, Hull sprained his ankle. It wasn't the dreaded high ankle sprain, but it was enough to set back his early progress in the spring. The timing was atrocious.
"It definitely was. It was very frustrating as a player and as a teammate. It's definitely not what I wanted to do. It set me back a little bit, but I'm getting a lot better. I'm almost back to healthy; it's improving."
He said that after a week of spring ball. Later in the spring, he reinjured it, keeping him from getting all the practice time he needed. Regardless, he feels he is making progress at his new position.
"I'm feeling a lot better. I'm doing a lot better and feeling more confident and comfortable at safety. It's a lot better having guys that you're familiar with, and it's a lot easier to play."
The Cincinnati Sycamore product has more to learn, but he feels like a safety now.
"Really, I think I need to improve my instincts. That's something I want to let flow more naturally. I think I see things faster than I saw things when I was real hesitant to react just because I was still a little uncomfortable.
"But I've improved my footwork and technique. I feel a lot more confident and can let things flow more naturally and play as an athlete, let it all go."
He is learning both the cat and free safety positions to provide depth at both. He has no preference.
"I'm learning both of them. Whichever one gets me on the field faster."
Hull's progress has been enhanced with the addition of new secondary coach Mike Gillhamer.
"Coach Hammer is a great guy. He's definitely someone that brings a whole new aspect to our defense and to us as a secondary. He didn't really feel like a new coach when he came in. We were comfortable with him to begin with.
"Coaching-wise and on the field, he's a great guy. We get along well, and everything's clicking."
The 6'-1", 185 pounder expects to be busy with special teams this fall.
"I'm on the punt team, the punt return team and the kickoff and kickoff return teams."
Hull sees growth in the defense and feels it will be a formidable force come fall.
"I think we're making great improvement. I think we're definitely getting a lot better technique-wise, attitude-wise and developing sort of a mentality of being great."
That mentality was aided by the win in the Texas Bowl, although he says the team wants more.
"Oh yeah. Any bowl game is a great trip. That's something we definitely had in our mindset. We didn't get to the bowl we were kind of expecting to get to go to.
"That's good when you're disappointed on going to a bowl game. Not disappointed in the bowl game, but knowing you could have done better is a good feeling. We're hungry for more."
Illinois head coach Ron Zook, speaking after the second major spring scrimmage, praised the Communications major's effort.
"I thought Steve played well. He showed more physicality today than he had in the first scrimmage. I was happy with the way Steve played."
Of course, he tweaked his ankle again after that. Hopefully, a summer of ankle strengthening will pave the way for a healthy, productive fall. The Illini need him on the field, and he can use the peace of mind.