Sanni's Return a Success

CHAMPAIGN – Supo Sanni slowly stood up when reporters were done asking their questions shortly following Illinois' 35-7 loss to Penn State last weekend.

He picked his bag up off the floor and, with his left knee awkwardly stiff, inched toward the door as if he was in no hurry to be anywhere. He exited the room, looked left and then headed that way. Perhaps it wasn't quite the happy return he'd envisioned. But it was a return nonetheless.

He tallied 10 tackles against the Nittany Lions, back on the field after an injury to that left knee cost him the first four games of his senior season.

Although his knee tightened up in the locker room, he insisted he's now 100 percent and will start Saturday against Wisconsin.

"I feel great. I'm healthy; just ready to lead our secondary and be a vocal leader on the team and be able to get back to where we need to be," he said.

It wasn't easy for Sanni to watch, especially since he's been through it before. A ruptured Achilles cost him 2010, so he knew the drill. Patience may be a virtue, but it's not necessarily easy to employ, not with the whistles of preseason camp filling the air.

He missed all of August, relegated to a stationary bike for most of the team's practices. Games were the worst. The secondary missed Sanni, and with fellow safety Steve Hull injured too, the margin for error was slim. There were mistakes made in losses to Arizona State and Louisiana Tech, issues that Sanni could do nothing about in the moment.

"It's been real tough, but what we try to do is just persevere," he said.

So, he did what he could. He took sophomore Earnest Thomas under his wing. The two frequently talked things through and watched film together.

"Just going through every day, attacking practice with the mentality of game week," Sanni said of the overall message he conveyed to Thomas.

Sanni didn't start against Penn State, but it didn't take long. He entered on the second series of the game.

Hull re-emerged later on, and after Thomas was ejected for a helmet-to-helmet blow, co-defensive coordinator Tim Banks left Sanni in for good.

"He was rusty, but at the end of the day having him back there makes us better," Banks said. "Not taking anything away from the kids who have been playing, but the reality of it is he's played a lot of football around here. We knew there'd be some bumps just because it was his first live action, but at the end of the day moving forward we feel we'll be better in the long run."

In his 37th career game, Sanni moved well, his knee standing the first test. The way the game turned out, clearly, wasn't ideal. But for Sanni, who just weeks prior struggled to run even sprints, being on the field meant a great deal.

"The best feeling is being out there with my brothers and my family and being able to play again and do the things I do best," he said.

Now that the return is out of the way, Sanni's focused on playing better, on leading a defense that hasn't performed well to this point. It's his final season, so there's no looking back, nothing taken for granted.

"That's what football is. That's what the sport is," he said. "You're going to go through bumps and bruises. Of course as a safety, all we've got to do is work hard and persevere."

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