Mike Gillhamer is praised by his defensive backs for his knowledge, his teaching ability and personality. They are learning a great deal and improving daily. And Gillhamer is adjusting well to his new surroundings.
"Coach (Ron) Zook has treated me real well. Coach Vic (Koenning) and I have gotten along great. I think the players are buying in to what we're trying to do. It's been real good."
Koenning and Zook have been secondary coaches before. Gillhamer finds this a benefit in his coaching.
"I'm working with two other db coaches. It's been good. You feel secure in what you're doing."
The one problem for Gillhamer has been learning the system installed by Koenning, especially the terminology. He knows it now, but it took time.
"I need to adjust to what we do. From there, if there's anything I think would be a better way, I'll bring it up. I'm here to do what we do, what Koenning does. We are a lot alike in a lot of things, so it has been a very smooth deal. I'm in Mexico now, and I've got to learn Spanish. It's the same type of thing."
Gillhamer has found the Illinois players receptive to his coaching.
"It was a real good fit, right from the very beginning. I was real proud of them. They're buying in and going."
Rather than relying on personnel with the most game experience from last year, he gave every player a chance to impress him.
"I listened to the other coaches, but I made my own decisions. I gave everybody a free shot to see what they could do."
The secondary is considered the strength of the defense. Gillhamer has talent, and depth is improved. Of course, there is still more to learn.
"We're still making mistakes. We've got to get to where we're not making mental mistakes so we can play fast. We've got some guys in new positions, like (Jack) Ramsey to free.
"We're not getting beat physically as much as mentally. If we can eliminate the mental mistakes, I think we'll be okay. We have the athletic talent; now we just need to get them to do the right thing.
"We've got to be technique sound, and we've got to be mentally sound. And we've got to get our safeties to become leaders."
Cornerback is well fortified with Tavon Wilson, Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green all being possible pro players some day. Gillhamer is pleased with their progress and believes all three might be on the field at the same time.
"They can be when we go to our sub package. You need three corners. If you have three corners who can play, you are really, really lucky. It is a blessing in any league. So they're all gonna play. When you've got three, and you don't drop when you bring in the third guy, then you're cooking with gas."
Wilson is the senior leader. He was the best cover corner at Camp Rantoul and is poised for his best season.
"Tavon Wilson wants to be a football player. He's got a great attitude. He just gets better. And he's so coachable, it's amazing. He's really smart."
Hawthorne gets the most hype, and much of it is deserved. But Gillhamer reminds he still needs to work on some things. After all, this is the first year in three he's been healthy for all of fall practice.
"He's big, and he's got those long arms. That's what you really want. If you can get a corner with long arms, it helps them.
"He's playing too high right now; we've got to help him play a little lower. His attitude right now is, he wants to be good. So we take something every day and try to get better.
"He's got some skills, and he's got a great attitude. We just have to refine it all in. I like those big, long corners with long arms.
"I'm of the opinion it takes reps. The more you play the game, the better you're gonna get. He's got to stay healthy."
Supo Sanni and Steve Hull may be the starting safeties going into the season, with Pat Nixon-Youman and Ramsey backing them up. Tavon Wilson and Trulon Henry started as safety last year, but both have moved to other positions. So Gillhamer is giving his less experienced people a crash course.
"At safety, just like corner, you're gonna get your two best guys on the field. That's why the mental thing is big for them. Right now, we've got four safeties. We've moved Jack over, and mentally he's got to pick it up. He has the physical skills to do it. We're just working from there."
Sanni appears fully recovered after Achilles surgery. He has excellent athleticism for a 6'-3", 220 pounder. Hull has made a big impression this fall after moving from receiver a year ago.
"Steve Hull has had a great camp. He's done a really good job."
Among the freshmen, Valdon Cooper has gotten the most reps with the second team defense. He is a cornerback who was also tried at nickel and made plays at both spots. Cornerback Eaton Spence and safety Nick North have potential but are still learning.
"Eaton Spence is doing well. It's a little fast for Nick right now, but he's got the athletic skills. He's gonna be okay."
Does Gillhamer feel he has enough depth to go to war this year?
"Yes I do. If we've got six guys who can play, we're gonna be lucky."
Speaking from his first Camp Rantoul, Gillhamer was asked to compare it with his other stops throughout his career.
"This is probably the best place I've ever been for a training camp. It's really nice. The facilities are great, the food's awesome. You don't have to start your car, you just hop in your golf cart and go where you've got to go. It's just a great place.
"I'm kind of a camp guy anyway. I like it. You get more sleep in camp because I only live 2 minutes away. It's a great setup."
Having Gillhamer as the Illini secondary coach appears to be a great setup also. He is a teacher who cares about his players. He shared his philosophy as a coach.
"I try to make them students of the game. I just think that's real important."