Upcoming junior Garrett Edwards played both safety and nickel back last fall, his first year as a regular on the Illinois defense. He played safety full time this spring and was listed with the first string throughout. He seems to prefer it.
"Neither of them bother me, but I like playing safety a little more. You're out in space a little more. I feel you're able to be more of a playmaker. But I like playing them both."
Garrett was pleased to see the defensive intensity this spring.
"We played with more emotion on the defensive side. When we do that, we can be a pretty good defense. I think we did pretty good, and the offense looked pretty good.
"We're definitely trying to bring intensity every day. Coaches (Curt) Mallory, (Dan) Disch and (Keith) Gilmore all harp on getting your emotion up. Without emotion, you can't really play any position in football. We're getting more and more as the weeks go on, and we look like a pretty good defense when we have that up."
Emotional intensity may have been the biggest missing ingredient last season.
"Yeah. You saw a lot of times where you're just out there going through the motions, you're not gonna play to your potential. The worst thing you can have for your defense is not play to your potential."
Leadership is key according to the 6'-2", 210 pounder.
"I think it starts with leadership. You've got to have guys out there that when they want you to do it, you do it. It all starts with that. Last year we had good leadership, but we weren't up all the time.
"This year, we're seeing a lot of the younger guys stepping up into leadership roles, which we didn't have last year. That's gonna help the defense as a whole."
A big problem for the safeties last year was a lack of experience and maturity. Several players were tried at the two positions, but no one really distinguished himself. Edwards believes he knows why.
"Yeah, we rotated a lot of guys at the safety positions, and guys were worried about making mistakes. When you're worried about making mistakes and not confident is when you make mistakes.
"This year, I think the safeties have really learned what the rest of the team is doing. When you know what everyone else is doing, it makes your job easier. I think that's played a big part in bringing confidence to the safeties."
Another factor last year was the target the Illini had on their backs after going to the Rose Bowl in 2007. At times, they played not to lose instead of playing to win. Now, they want to make up for last year's embarrassment.
"I think last year, coming off a Rose Bowl year a lot was expected. This year, I think no one's giving us much credit. It's for us to prove that, and that's what we want to do. When you prove it is when you become a good D."
Illinois' best teams historically have been solid up the middle defensively. In particular, they had veteran safeties that were knowledgeable and experienced, often making up for a lack of overall athleticism with savvy and determination. Seniors Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison led the defense in 2007, and Garrett and his partner Bo Flowers are beginning to remind coaches of them.
"The coaches said that after week 1. Bo and I look more confident out there. We hadn't gotten much reps in 2007. Since playing back there last year, we're playing a lot more confident and not thinking about making mistakes. And we've played together, which helps. We both know both the strong and free safeties, which helps a lot too."
There is some depth at safety as well, especially if upcoming senior Donsay Hardeman decides to play after having neck surgery last fall. Freshmen Supo Sanni and Ashante Williams both show promise, and Edwards is helping the younger players learn the system.
"It's a tough defense to learn, and they still have a lot to learn as we do. They still have a lot to learn on their technique. Once they get their technique down, they'll be all right. Both are athletic guys, so the more technique they get they'll be better. They're showing signs of becoming very good players."
The Downers Grove North graduate is a hard worker who knows his weaknesses and what he must do to improve. He offers an extensive list because he want to be his absolute best.
"I want to improve on my tackling. Knowing where everybody is in the defense, making people right and not making any mistakes out there. I'm at the point where I shouldn't be making any mistakes and know exactly what I'm doing. Everything in my game, my backpedal, my man-to-man techniques, anything I can get better at."