Terry Hawthorne's name has long conjured images of superstardom in Illini Nation's collective psyche. He was an All-American receiver and safety at East St. Louis, and he turned around the Michigan game as a freshman in 2009 by catching up to a receiver before he could reach the end zone.
But injuries slowed his progress. He began his Illinois career at receiver, but a broken bone in his hand limited his ability to make an early impact on offense. Out of necessity, he was moved to cornerback and has been there ever since. New Illini head coach Tim Beckman tried him at receiver for the first time last week. Hawthorne wasn't as adaptable as one might expect.
"I haven't played there in so long. I've got to get back used to it; I'm a little rusty at it. I've got to get my hips back into it.
"My legs and hips are so used to back-peddling and breaking up to the ball. Running routes and cutting are totally different. I've got to get my body back into the rhythm of a receiver."
He will play anywhere required. All he cares about is winning.
"Whatever is good for the team. If that's going to get us to a BCS championship game, then I'm all for it."
The 6'-2", 185 pounder admits he used to believe he would play both ways eventually.
"Receiver was more the priority when I came here. Coach (Ron) Zook told me that he would give me a shot at both if he needed me there. But pushing and pulling, I ended up at corner. It really didn't matter."
Hawthorne could be saving his best for his final season. That is, if he can finally make it through a whole year healthy. His recurring foot stress fracture limited his abilities at corner and prevented him trying receiver also.
"I most definitely think this will be my best season. I've made it through spring ball. I'm a little bit healthy; I won't say I'm 100% healthy. This off-season, I'm basically just going to work on my body to keep it healthy and strengthen my bones up. I hope to stay healthy through the season."
He feels he understands the cornerback position better now. He shares what he has improved since last season.
"My footwork and knowing the techniques as a cornerback. Just being a ball player."
Hawthorne is definitely needed at cornerback. This spring, only redshirt freshman Eaton Spence backs him up. Fortunately, he feels Spence has the ability to help.
"He's coming along well. I sit down and talk with him. We go over everything. I tell him to keep pushing himself. The kid, he's gonna be a great football player. Hopefully he keeps coming along and building himself up. Hopefully he gets a chance to see the field this year."
Hawthorne had two big punt returns in Monday's Special Team scrimmage. The one for 38 yards set up the winning field goal. But Beckman states and he agrees he still has problems fielding punts.
"I had a little bit of a struggle at the beginning of the season last year at doing it. It was my first season back there. The wind is a tough thing for punt returns. We've got to make an adjustment to it and practice more on it."
He likes his new cornerback coach Steve Clinkscale.
"Coach Clink is a great guy. It took me awhile to get involved, to get in with him. I'm not the type of person that just gets along with a person well. It takes me awhile to build a relationship with him. When he first got in, he called me a few times, almost every day. When I was in town, we went out and ate lunch. I guess he brought me in.
"I enjoy all the coaches that we have. They are some great coaches. Even though they're from different schools, they want us to build upon each other and come together as a family. Just play as a team; they want us to win."
One thing for sure, Beckman has made workouts fun for the players.
"I really am enjoying spring ball. It seems like the whole team is having fun. We're going hard in the weight room. We did good in winter conditioning. I just hope we keep building on the team and come together at the end."
Is the defense as good as it appears on paper?
"Yes, most definitely. But it's both defense and offense; I'm not going to say just defense. Our offense will be good this year."
Hawthorne has two career interceptions for touchdowns in his three years on campus. He wants to be a more consistent ball hawk in 2012.
"I'm pushing for at least four interceptions this year. But who says whether I'm going to get it or not? I'm just hoping."
From the beginning of his tenure on campus, Beckman has recognized Hawthorne's playmaking abilities. It was confirmed in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl when he returned an interception to help the Illini top UCLA. Beckman is looking for more; thus the receiver tryout.
"He makes plays. That interception return in the bowl game changed the momentum of the football game. You could feel it on the sideline. It's just being able to play at that level all the time. Not just Terry, but the whole football team. I think Terry's had a great spring.
"We got him a little bit of work at receiver. You'll probably get to see #1 out at receiver in the Spring Game."