However, while Hawthorne joined starters Justin Green and rover Ashante Williams on the field Thursday, safeties Steve Hull and Supo Sanni remained limited or out of action due to undisclosed injuries.
"They're very good athletes and you know, they're doing a good job," coach Tim Beckman said.
While both Sanni and Hull are expected to return before next weekend's season opener, Nixon-Youman and Thomas have used the opportunity as an attempt to prove they can perform as starters if needed.
"Everyday coaches tell me to practice like a starter and to prepare like a starter," Thomas said. "Coming into the season I already knew I was going to have a role, but with some things happening in our secondary it's even getting bigger."
A pair of young defensive backs have received increased work to help develop depth, ever important given the circumstances. Redshirt freshman Eaton Spence and freshman V'Angelo Bentley are considered the greenhorns of the unit, but they've been thrown into the mix.
"They both are pretty good talents that we had coming in," Hawthorne said. "Hopefully they've got the athleticism to go out there to play the game. It's going to come down to which one wants it the most and learns the playbook the most to actually go out there and do it."
The injuries may have thrown the depth chart into flux, but the quality reps received by others may be blessing later in the season.
"We all understand that since we have a lot of people out the next man has to step up," Green said. "Just because someone is out doesn't mean we have to hang our heads. We've still got a long season to go. Anything can happen."
Are we there yet?
After weeks of installation and many hours of work, the finish line is in sight. Technically only three days of "preseason" remain, as the first game week is set to begin Monday.
"I'm getting excited now," Green said. "It's my last year here, so I want to end it on a good note."
While the team is gearing more practice time to specifically prepare for the Sept. 1 opener against Western Michigan, Beckman says he's not finished teaching in broad concepts just yet.
"No question, I know they're tired of hitting each other and all that stuff," he said. "There's things we've got to get better at and we've got to continue to build our depth."
While the players are eager to switch to game prep mode, Beckman and staff have been arriving to work at 5:30 a.m. and days have been filled with studying up on the Broncos from Kalamazoo.
"Right now I'd say 23 hours (of the day) are for Western Michigan and 59 minutes are for everybody else," Beckman said.
"They're a heck of a football team. They've proven that they can be successful. We know that that's going to be a challenge for us."
This and that...
Senior defensive lineman Glenn Foster said his weight is currently at 285, up 30 pounds from last season. … The Illini football team recorded a 3.09 team grade-point average for summer courses, the university announced. … Illinois students are invited to attend Sunday's practice, beginning at 6 p.m.