Supo Sanni sat out the 2010 season after having his Achilles tendon rupture repaired surgically. He made rapid improvement but was still held out of full contact in the spring. He is now fully recovered and beginning to fulfill the promise expected of him.
Sanni grabbed his first ever Illini interception last Saturday against South Dakota State.
"It was definitely a treat," Sanni proclaimed afterward. "The only bigger treat that I could have had was take it back to the house, but I got tackled."
Illinois coach Ron Zook was thrilled to see it.
"This is his first real playing time since he's the starter. He's getting better and better. I was real happy for him. Those things just boost your confidence and make you feel that much better.
"Here's a guy that was out of football for a year. You could see he was trying so hard to do the things that Coach Gillhamer was teaching him to do. It was exciting to watch him. He's gonna go nothing but straight up in terms of his play."
Sanni understates the relief he feels to be back playing the game he loves.
"It feels 100%. It feels good being back on the field helping my teammates."
The 6'-3", 220 pounder looks more like a linebacker than a safety now. Unable to train his legs last winter, he spent his time working his upper body.
"Yeah, I get that a lot. Hopefully these legs can still move like they used to. Just being out there and working with the dbs is exciting for me right now."
Once he was cleared to run and train his legs, he regained his quickness.
"What they emphasized during my period of being injured is staying flexible and moving as fast as I could, getting back to top speed before I even stepped on the field."
He admits it feels different to be back practicing full time. Having to do without something important to you makes you appreciate it more when you have it.
"It is a lot different. I was so eager to get back on the field, and in the spring sometimes they had to hold me back. Now it's just full go and full tilt. It's an exciting feeling to be out there."
It is never good to endure a major injury, but the extra year has helped him evolve as a safety.
"I think he's a more mature player," Zook states. "He understands the game much better. He's done some things this fall that I've been very impressed with, like coming up and doing a great job tackling.
"He's a high-waisted guy, so sometimes it's hard for him to change directions. He has to really work on bending the knees and getting down. Coach (Mike) Gillhamer has done a great job with that. He's getting better and better."
The Illini had a couple superstars on defense last year, but Corey Liuget and Martez Wilson left for the pros a year early. Sanni says the 2011 team can make up for their absence with better depth. He knows first hand how an injury to a starter can have a deleterious effect on the team.
"We want to have depth. Just like last year, one of us could go down, and we need somebody to replace him. We don't look at it as stars. If we need someone to plug in somewhere, we do that."
"Depth is really good. It's just me, Pat, Jack, Steve Hull all working there at the two safety spots. And Trulon (Henry) with his versatility can move back and forth. I think that's what we're capable of doing. We've got people who can move around. I think that's a key component for our team."
The former Homewood-Flossmoor star believes the current Illinois defense can withstand the potent offenses it will face in the rugged Big 10.
"I think our defense is doing really good. We've worked together as a team. It's a team-oriented defense, and people are more accountable for what their actions are on the field. I think we can only grow through stuff like that."