Pat Nixon-Youman suffered a severe hip injury that required surgery more than two years ago. The junior defensive back has needed all this time for his recovery. The first backup at both safety spots, he was awarded starting assignments against Wisconsin and Minnesota after Steve Hull was injured. He was happy to see playing time again.
"I've been doing good. It's been a long road, man. But I stuck with it, and it's fun. It was very exciting to just get out there and run. Having my speed is great."
He says he is healthy now, but he still doesn't have all his 4.4 40 speed back.
"I've recovered from it. Now I'm doing good. I don't think I have all my quickness back because I'm not as flexible as I was before. But I'm working to get there. I can still see improvement every day. My hip's getting stronger, which is all good for me because that was one of the weak spots."
He also has a slight build, but hard work in the weight room has bulked him up to 180 pounds. Since he is now playing safety rather than cornerback, he needs the extra weight and strength.
"Coach Lou (Hernandez) has been working with me, and I think it's been a great asset for my game. I'm way stronger; Lou pushes us to the max."
Formerly a cornerback, it has taken Nixon-Youman time to earn the trust of his coaches.
"I just had to pay attention to what the coaches are saying and get better every day."
He was asked to assess his performance as a starting safety.
"I think I did good. There's some things I can improve on. As a safety, you've got to be a leader out there. I made sure I knew all the calls, so I stayed in my book."
Nixon-Youman replaced the injured Steve Hull, whose responsibility it was to call checks for the defensive backs. He feels he is capable of doing that.
"Either safety can do it. If I see something, I can make a check. If he sees something, he can make the check. We've just got to communicate together. As a free safety, that's my responsibility."
He has been cross-trained at both safety positions, so he can spell strong safety Supo Sanni as well.
"Yeah, and it's fine going back and forth. I enjoy it. I play both, but primarily I'm a free safety."
Nixon-Youman sees the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl as a chance for team redemption.
"I think it's a great opportunity. It gives us a chance to prove what we can do."
The Illinois team lost its last six games of the regular season and now faces a crisis of confidence. Nixon-Youman admits it can be hard to believe in yourself after the trauma of the past couple months, but he feels strongly the team can accomplish it and perform well in the game.
"Yeah it's hard, but it comes along with our game. Playing this bowl, we can come out and win or lose every day. We need to go out there, play the way we're coached to play and do what we're coached to do. If we don't do that we lose, just like the last six games. We've just got to get back to the drawing board and do what it takes."
Whether he starts or backs up Hull and Sanni against UCLA, look for #4 in the defensive backfield. When you do, realize how much that man has persevered to get where he is today.