Tavon Wilson came to Illinois out of Washington, D.C., as an insecure freshman. He had skills and showed flashes of his potential even then, but he is an entirely different person now. His personal growth may have seemed a long process at the time, but the time has gone fast.
"I've played a lot of games around here. I started a lot of games, but it still hasn't hit me yet that I'm a senior."
He has represented the Illini at two straight Big 10 media days, a testament to his leadership and maturity. And he was the obvious choice as best defensive back at Camp Rantoul this summer. Receivers had trouble gaining separation from his smart, physical play.
"I'm getting a lot more comfortable than when I was younger. All the experience I've had gives you a lot of confidence. I've been around a long time, so I've seen all different types of receivers."
Wilson had to sacrifice personal goals for the team last season. Missing two safeties, he was moved there just before the first game. He is happy to be back at corner, but his experience at safety and nickel now allows him to play all three positions when needed.
"There had to be a little shuffling. We've moved some guys around. I'm still gonna play some safety and some corner. We still feel pretty good about what we've got going back there.
"Sometimes they see me up there in our nickel package, and everybody knows I'm a reliable person. Everybody trusts me."
Wilson believes the Illini safeties this year will do the job, allowing him to stay at corner along with Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green, two cornerbacks with great potential. Safeties Supo Sanni and Steve Hull appear the likely starters for the first game, while Pat Nixon-Youman and Jack Ramsey provide depth.
"The safeties are coming along pretty well. Steve Hull is a pretty good player; he's done a lot for us. Jack Ramsey has been pretty good. We're gonna be set at safety regardless of who's back there."
Wilson has also been working with two freshmen cornerbacks. They both have a chance to see playing time this season.
"We've got some younger guys that are pretty good in Eaton Spence and Valdon Cooper. I got the younger guys watching film so they wouldn't be as behind when they got to camp. Things are starting to speed up and we're putting more stuff in. But those guys had the base package down before the coaches were even around.
"That's a credit to them because they wanted to learn it. They came up to me and asked me to teach it to them. That's what I did."
Many prognosticators downgrade the UI defense due to the loss of NFL draftees Corey Liuget and Martez Wilson. That just makes the current Illini hungrier to prove them wrong.
"Definitely. Everybody talks about Martez and Corey leaving. Those were great players for us, but we are hungry to show we've still got good players. We're gonna show up.
"I think we're gonna be pretty good because we trust each other. Defense is all about trusting each other."
Of course, there's always room for improvement. Wilson sites one area in particular that requires better results than last year.
"Turnovers. We've got to take advantage of our opportunities. Run to the football and try not to make too many mistakes."
The UI defense had a few sensational moments against a potent Illini offense in Camp Rantoul, but it also got burned at times. No defense can beat the Illini offense at all times on all days. Relatively speaking, Wilson is confident the 2011 defense is an improvement over 2010.
"We're coming along a lot faster than we were a year ago."