Illinois lost superstar cornerback Vontae Davis a year early to the NFL draft. But all the other starters return to a defensive backfield that should be improved this fall.
Senior Dere Hicks brings the most experience to the secondary. He has lettered three straight years as a cornerback and won the award as Most Valuable Defensive Back after the 2008 season. He has also seen time at nickel back and can play either position effectively. Hicks had some mild leg problems that set him back this spring, but he should be 100% by fall.
Tavon Wilson played last fall as a true freshman, and he manned the other cornerback slot this spring. He is a solid 195 pounds, and he plays aggressively. Zook praised his work at the end of spring.
"Tavon has done a heck of a job. It's amazing in their second year they just get better and better."
The wild card among the cornerbacks is Miami Thomas. The Chicago Morgan Park grad was a late game star subbing for Vontae in the big Ohio State victory in 2007 as a true freshman, but he missed last fall while undergoing both knee and shoulder surgeries.
Thomas could be the best cornerback Illinois has if he returns to full health. He has a natural understanding of the position and a high football IQ. But it may be too much to ask him to recuperate fully from two major surgeries.
Doctors cleared him to participate in some noncontact work this spring, but he showed a slight limp when running full out. He will have to be 100% mentally and physically to play his best.
Travon Bellamy and Pat Nixon-Youman backed up Hicks and Wilson this spring. Bellamy appeared lost at safety last year, and his return to his natural cornerback spot should help him. He played extensively two years ago at nickel, but two shoulder surgeries made him tentative last fall. Travon showed signs this spring of regaining his confidence.
Nixon-Youman had to sit out last fall while awaiting NCAA academic clearance. Slightly built, Nixon-Youman is extremely quick and fast and especially adept at man-to-man coverage. And he likes to hit.
Nixon-Youman wasn't cleared for eligibility until the second spring practice, but having him on the field was a big boost to Coach Ron Zook's morale as well as his own.
"Pat's out here," Zook stated. "Finally. I know he was happy. For a guy that hadn't been out here, he's got some quicks and he's got some ability."
Nixon-Youman suffered a tear in an abdominal muscle the final week of spring, but his surgery was successful. He should be healthy by fall. Walkon Nattiel Perkins made several good plays this spring, but it remains whether he or squadman Antonio Gully will see playing time this fall.
Freshmen defensive backs entering school this fall will be given an opportunity to play. Walt Aikens, Tommie Hopkins and Joelil Thrash will all be given a chance at corner first but can move to safety if needed.
Hopkins is recovering from an accidental gunshot wound to his leg, so it is unknown whether he will be healthy enough to play. Aikens is a three-sport standout from North Carolina who may see time on special teams if nothing else. And Thrash hopes to follow the lead of other successful Washington, D. C. standouts at Illinois.
The two safety positions were a true enigma for the Illini last year. Athletes in their first year on the field cannot be as good as graduating seniors, so the team suffered from a lack of experience there. Several players were tried at the positions, and they all made their fair share of mistakes that led to big plays.
Safeties must be leaders on the team. They make calls for the defensive backs and must be in their correct spots at all times for the defense to work properly. Hopefully, last year's experience will help everyone concerned.
The two starters out of spring are Bo Flowers and Garrett Edwards. They are older and more mature, and they have more understanding of their roles. They are not the fastest athletes, but they can make up for a lack of speed by using their smarts to be at the right place at the right time.
Backing them up are freshmen Supo Sanni and Ashante Williams. Sanni saw action last fall. He is tall and rangy, and he can cover a lot of ground. But he is still inconsistent. Williams moved from cornerback and could become a good one with time. But he redshirted last fall and lacks experience. Both have improved according to Zook.
"Ashante and Supo, you can tell they're more confident and have a better feel for what's going on."
The big unknown at safety is upcoming senior Donsay Hardeman. A potential NFL player, Hardeman is big and fast and hits like a ton of bricks. And he may become an outstanding leader. Unfortunately, his tendency to lead with his head produced a broken bone in his neck, and his future is uncertain. His surgery was a success, and he did some noncontact work this spring.
Neck injuries are always a concern because of the threat they pose to the spinal column. A reinjury could cause paralysis. However, if doctors clear Hardeman to play, it is up to him whether he feels he can play effectively without fear according to Zook.
"Obviously he's back, and we're trying to get him ready to go. The prognosis right now is good, but he's just got to do things he needs to do. He wasn't going to go through spring. He looks pretty good out there. He can do everything right now with the exception of course of contact.
"I think it'll be up to him to return. I've been around guys who have had similar things and have played years in the NFL. He's going to have to feel comfortable with it. The doctors have given him the best treatment, and he's gotten 2 or 3 opinions. Our doctors wouldn't clear him unless they felt he was okay. The last C-Scan or bone scan looked good."
The top six defensive backs, if healthy, could help give Illinois a formidable defense. Cornerbacks Hicks, Thomas and Wilson, and safeties Hardeman, Flowers and Edwards could help Illini fans forget last season's frustrations. But they will have to be healthy and continue to improve.