CHAMPAIGN - Caleb Day long has had the distinction as a top athlete -- a big reason the Ohio native once held a scholarship offer from Ohio State.
But Day still must prove he's a starting-caliber Big Ten football player. Now a senior, the Illinois safety is running out of time to do so.
“This year, it has to be my year," said Day, who has 32 tackles in 29 career games. "It’s my last year. It’s not just my year, but Illinois’. We have some great coaches here. We just have to take advantage of that.”
While Day may win a team decathlon, he hasn't found a home on the field.
Tim Beckman's staff shifted Day back and forth between cornerback and safety and even tried him out at receiver during a stretch of practices. Bill Cubit used him out of his offensive backfield last season with Day catching two passes for 18 yards against Wisconsin.
Day couldn't crack the rotation at cornerback despite having more speed than long-time starter Eaton Spence, more length than long-time starter V'Angelo Bentley and just more pure overall talent than classmate Darius Mosely. At safety, Day was passed up by junior college transfer Zane Petty in 2014 and former walk-on Clayton Fejedelem, an All-Big Ten Second Team selection in 2015.
After serving a three-game suspension to start last season due to a violation of team rules, Day made most of his limited impact (seven tackles, one interception) on special teams. In his first game against Middle Tennessee, he blocked a punt which Fejedelem recovered for a touchdown.
Cubit's staff had planned to again move Day from safety to cornerback before Cubit was dismissed and replaced by Lovie Smith. So far this spring, Day is running at free safety. With Day running almost entirely with the first string, the new staff appears to be giving him every chance to win the job.
"I feel that safety is where I’m supposed to be," Day said. "But it doesn’t matter. They can put me anywhere, and I’ll play it.
“It’s somewhat difficult (switching positions so many times). Different techniques, different rules. Over time, these coaches do a good job of getting one-on-one with us, getting the time in and watching film.”
Smith, defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson and secondary coach Paul Williams prioritize putting the best athletes on the field. That , of course, should help Day, who has the speed and range to thrive at free safety. But he's had those traits since he arrived at Illinois.
“He needs reps," Williams said. "He needs lots of reps, but he’s a really good athlete. We try to take advantage of that. It’s just about getting him comfortable in a package and playing fast is the biggest thing.”
Williams wants Day to conquer the mental aspect of the game, something that obviously has kept him off the field in previous seasons. Williams said a free safety must be trustworthy in the Illini's defensive scheme.
“They got to do a good job reading their keys," Williams said. "They have to show up. They’re really the quarterback of the defense. You put a lot of pressure on both of them because they have to learn the defense inside out really as good as you do.”
So will we see a new, better Day in 2016?
“I have the competitiveness, the juice," Day said. "I feel my athleticism is decent, but that’s not enough. I need to learn the defense, and not only the defense but the offensive schemes to be better, to become a better player.”