Q&A with new Illini defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson

Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner talks with new Illinois defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson -- a five-time Pro Bowl linebacker -- about his NFL career, his draw to Lovie Smith and the identity of his defense

Check out Illini Inquirer's Q&A with new Illini offensive coordinator Garrick McGee.

Do you still go by the nickname "El Dragón"?

Hardy Nickerson: "(Laughs) Yeah. That nickname pops up quite a bit, especially for those who have seen that (Nike) commercial."


What do you remember about that commercial? Can you take me back to that?

Nickerson: "Just the fact that I never physically show up in that commercial. It's just Dennis Hopper talking about me and the car starting and pulling off and he's chewing on a picture of me and stuff. That's all I remember about it."

Those old creamsicle Buccaneers uniforms were somethin'.

Nickerson: "Wait, you guys didn't like those uniforms? Aww, man! Those were nice!"

What was your favorite uniform you wore? You wore Steelers, Packers, Jaguars, Bucs.

Nickerson: "I'd have to say that the orange really treated me nice. I like the orange."

Coach, you got it figured out already! I see what you did there. We might have to tell the kids to look up YouTube clips of your NFL career or your Football Reference page because it was a heck of a career.

Nickerson: "It was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed the places that I played. Probably the most memorable was Tampa because of the turnaround we were able to make there. The career was just great. I wouldn't trade it for anything. I thoroughly enjoyed it and made the most ability that I had as a player."


What made you want to join Lovie Smith and come to Champaign?

Nickerson: "Well, Lovie's my coach. That's my coach. Lovie and I go way back to Tampa. He was my linebackers coach. We developed a relationship and it just never ended. He would always ask me if I ever thought about coaching. Initially as a player, I thought, 'I don't know if I want to coach. It seems like a whole lot.' Once I got done playing, a few years removed from playing, I kind of got the bug. You start coaching your kids and then you start coaching other sports. Then I got the bug and said, 'I want to give this a shot.' I ended up on the staff in Chicago (in 2007) and coaching the linebackers there and then on to Tampa (2014-15) and then here. Coach Lovie's just a great man, and I really enjoy working for him and he's just a great guy to be around and have as a mentor for me as a coach."

This may be an over-generalization on my part but it seems like a lot of great players don't translate so easily to coaching. Maybe it's because the game came a little easier to them and it's harder them to teach not-as-talented players. Why have you transitioned well to coaching? Why do you think it made sense for you?

Nickerson: "I just take my experience as a player. Pretty much the things that worked for me. I was fortunate to be around a lot of great football minds and some really great coaches. I had Tony Dungy as a head coach. I had him as a defensive coordinator when I first entered the league in Pittsburgh and then later in my career as a head coach. Having Lovie Smith as my linebackers coach. Being around Monte Kiffin. Being around Chuck Noll and Tom CoughlinBill Cowher. Marvin Lewis was a linebackers coach of mine for a year when I was in Pittsburgh. So I've been around a lot of great guys and just kind of have taken bits and pieces from those experiences and use that in terms of relating to players and coaching them up."

Describe yourself as a coach. We remember you being pretty fiery on the field. How are you as a coach?

Nickerson: "I'm very serious, detail-oriented and I operate with very high expectations. I'm intense. Same kind of things that I was as a player but as a coach. Of course, you won't see me running around and jumping around too much, but I really love the game and love being around it. I really love helping young men develop into players and the type of young men you want to become."

Obviously, Lovie Smith is a renowned defensive coach so his fingerprints surely will be on this defense. But have you guys talked about how you want to set this up and how you're going to run the defense during games, during the week and coming up with a game plan? How much is you? How much is him? Or is all just a staff effort?

Nickerson: "Any time you have Lovie Smith right next door to be able to call on and get advice from, it's just awesome. To have that type of resource right next door to be able to ask about anything if anything comes up is just great. Lovie said, 'Hey, this is your fingerprints all over this.' I'm sure it's a collective thing, and we'll do whatever it takes to make sure we're playing great defense and getting after it and playing with intensity and getting that ball, taking that ball away from the opposing offense and creating big plays."

Obviously, you haven't been a coordinator at this level. You were the head coach at a great high school program, Bishop O'Dowd (Oakland), in California. You've been a linebackers coach in the NFL. So what's the identity of defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson's defense?

Nickerson: "An identity of a Hardy Nickerson defense is a defense that's going to be relentless -- in all aspects. It's going to be flying around. It's going to be relentless to the football, going after the football, creating plays, creating opportunities for our offense, just doing whatever we have to do to win football games defensively."

Recruiting is such a big aspect of the college game. How do you tackle recruiting and where will you recruit? I imagine California, where you're from, is a big area for you.

Nickerson: "I'm from California, so that's a no-brainer right there. I think relating with young men, young kids coming out of high school has been a very strong point of mine. For some reason, just being able to connect with kids and get to their level, talk to them, I've always had great relationships with the kids that I've worked with, especially ones at the high-school level. I don't see that changing at all. For some reason, I've been kind of like a magnet for those guys. They've come to me saying, 'Coach, I really enjoy being around you,' even if I'm only around a kid for 30 minutes, it seems like I've been able to have an influence on them. I'm looking forward to that aspect."

What do you know about Illinois in regards to Illinois football? It used to be 'Linebacker U' with guys like Simeon Rice and Kevin Hardy. What are some of the things you think about in regards to Illini football?

Nickerson: "First off, when I think about Illini football, I think about Red GrangeDick ButkusRay Nitschke. And of course, I played with Kevin Hardy in Jacksonville and I know Simeon RiceDarrick Brownlow was down in Tampa when I first got down there in 1993. So I've been around people  who have played for Illinois. They've always ranted and raved about their experience here. So I've been very familiar with the program from afar. It's great to be here."

I figured you've probably watched some film of that defense. You lost a lot of linebackers. You got some defensive linemen coming back. But the back seven obviously doesn't have a lot of experience. Have you been able to digest some of that film and do you have any initial thoughts on what you have to work with?

Nickerson: "Initially, there are some young guys who have potential to be some really good football players, pretty much at every position. Jaylen DunlapCaleb DayTaylor BartonDarius MoselyJames Crawford. The list goes on and on. Carroll PhillipsDawuane Smoot is probably the leader of the pack. Those are guys that are returning that are good football players. There are a lot of young players that can really play this game. I'm excited about the opportunity to work with all of them and see who we came up with."

Who's the best linebacker you've ever played with?

Nickerson: "Oh, man. Best linebacker I ever played with I'd have to say -- and I've played with some good ones, now. Greg Lloyd in Pittsburgh was a good one. But I'd have to say Derrick Brooks."

Is he better than any guy you've coached too? Because you've coached some good ones too.

Nickerson: "(Laughs) Oh, that's tough, now. Because I coached Brian UrlacherLance Briggs, Lavonte DavidKwon Alexander -- those two guys within the last couple years. That's tough to say because the guys I coached here recently are young guys and they have their full careers ahead of them. But Derrick Brooks is probably the best one right now hands down."

Who's the running back you hated going against most? I figured it was Barry.

Nickerson: "(Laughs) I don't think anybody liked going against Barry Sanders. It was always a tough matchup."

Was there a guy who hit hard, harder than most running backs?

Nickerson: "Yeah, shucks. Cleveland had a running back Kevin Mack who I thought was one of the toughest guys on the planet. He was as tough as they came. He was a big back who could run over everybody and was tough as nails. When you say that, that name comes to mind immediately."

OK, here's a hard-hitting question. Are you coaching from the press box or the field? You know, that's a pretty big deal to some people.

Nickerson: "Right now, I'm still trying to figure that one out. I've always been on the field. I enjoy being down on the field, being around the players on the sidelines and getting a good feel for the game. As I think about that initially, I think I'll be down on the field."

A lot of fans are excited about this staff so far. Welcome aboard and good luck getting settled.

Nickerson: "Thank you. Go Illini!"

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