Nursing Injury Was Tough, But Clay Ready Now

Defensive end is a position of strength on the Illini football team this year. Upperclassmen Derek Walker, Will Davis and Doug Pilcher are proven commodities and have all-star potential. But there are some young colts pushing for playing time including Clay Nurse, who is one of the most improved Illini this spring.

A redshirt sophomore out of High Point high school in Beltsville, Maryland, the 6'-3", 263 pound Nurse is finally getting a chance to prove himself after enduring a lengthy recovery from injury. He is excited to be healthy again.

"It is good to know. I struggled with the injury for a long time, and I finally worked myself to get back here."

Clay played in his first three games of his freshman season in 2006, mostly on special teams, before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury that required surgery. He practiced with the team last spring and fall, but he was never at full strength.

"The doctor said it would require 2 years because of the type of injury it was, the surgery I had. Every football player is stubborn when it comes to injuries. You want to tell yourself you're more healthy than you really are. And that's basically what I did. I tried to push myself as hard as possible, as Coach wants us to."

The Kinesiology major wanted to play last fall, but his doctors were right. So while he eventually got some playing time late in the season, 2007 didn't work out as he'd hoped.

"I did have a setback. There was some scar tissue that needed to be broken up, the inflammation was still there. But it subsided after awhile. I just wasn't at 100% yet. I couldn't really use the arm like I wanted to. I just kept at the rehab."

Some schools had recruited Clay as a linebacker, and he admits he was stubborn enough to try it, especially last spring as he recuperated from surgery. But his coaches finally made sense to him.

"There's just something about Coach (Tom) Sims, something about defensive end. Coach Zook would speak often to me and was on me about playing defensive end. He told me, 'Clay, believe me, trust me, you're a defensive end because we see it in you.' So that's all I tried to do."

Nurse has self-confidence and belief in his abilities, so he had no problems making the adjustment.

"It wasn't so much about where the opportunity was for me to play because I knew all I had to do was work hard and I was gonna get on the field."

Clay has great respect for the upperclassmen ahead of him in the depth chart, but he knows he will get his chances these next three seasons.

"You can't ever replace senior leadership because those are the guys that got me to this point. Will Davis, D-Walk (Derek Walker), Linny (Dave Lindquist), those guys got on me about working, working on technique and everything.

"We don't look at it as replacing seniors, we just look at it as reloading. It's like a gun going off. Someone leaves, you just reload.

"On this team, there's no waiting your turn. If you can play, they're going to play you. If Will Davis gets 15 sacks (he's gonna be a great player), or if D-Walk leaves after getting 15 sacks or whatever, I want to step in, go from there and increase that number and just keep the team going upwards."

The Illini defense has sparkled this spring, but it's been at the expense of the Illini offense. Will the offense ever lose confidence or develop a complex over having to go against this defense every day?

"No, that's the thing. If you go against a good d-line, you're going to get better every day. You might not realize it."

However the offense responds, the defensive line is not permitted to let up in practice.

"It's a personal thing. Coach Sims calls us out every day. There's not one day when we go into that meeting room that Coach is not calling us out. If he puts his hand down in front of you, you'd better be taking back a nub. That's how we live on the d-line."

Coach Sims is tough on his troops, but he is a teacher who also makes the work fun.

"We love it, but it's hard. It's simple. It's easy. Once you get the plays down and know what you've got to do, mount up."

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