RANTOUL, Ill. - Jaylen Dunlap couldn't catch a break last season.
He injured his ankle during the first day of full-contact practice last season, sidelining him for the first four games of the season. His excitement for a return to the field during the Big Ten opener at Nebraska, however, was short-lived. On the eighth play of the game, he suffered a concussion that ultimately ended his season.
“I was going through the (concussion) tests all year and couldn’t quite pass the test," Dunlap said. "I wasn’t able to get cleared until the end of the season."
The silver lining to a frustrating season? Dunlap received a medical hardship waiver after playing in just one game.
“It was a blessing in disguise because now I get a fair chance at getting a starting spot my sophomore campaign," Dunlap said. "It’s just a fair chance at earning a spot because I wasn’t able to go through camp last year to earn a starting spot.”
Dunlap had a promising freshman campaign, playing in all 12 games and earning increasing reps during Big Ten play. His return gives the Illini much-needed size (6-foot-1, 190 pounds) on the perimeter, not just for this season but for two more seasons (likely as a starter).
“It was such a disappointment last year," said Illini head coach Tim Beckman. "Thank goodness he got the medical redshirt. I’m excited about him being back. He’s long. He’s a good player. He brings great depth to a position to I think we’re strong at. He’s a long kid, long arms and long legs. He’s very quick and very athletic.”
Dunlap currently is repping with the second string. The Illini are deep at cornerback with senior Eaton Spence (27 career starts), senior V'Angelo Bentley (20 career starts) and junior Darius Mosely (five career starts) all back. Dunlap has the combo of size and speed missing from most of his cornerback mates. He just lacks the experience.
“It’s great competition," Dunlap said. "We’re making all of each other better. That’s good. It’s not going to be easy for none of us because we’re all pushing each other day by day. Eaton makes a play, I want to make a play. I make a play, Eaton wants to make a play. V wants to make a play. Mosely wants to make a play. We push each other.”
Dunlap also seems to have the work ethic. He said he studies film of the NFL's best corners to try and pick up a tip or two.
“At the end of routes, I study a lot of Richard Sherman because I get a lot of interceptions," Dunlap said. "From the begining off the ball and in the middle of the route, I study a lot of Darrelle Revis because that’s all footwork. Then the height comes in when the ball is thrown in the air, so that’s why I study Richard Sheman.”