Illinois defensive end Clay Nurse is competing for a starting berth this fall. He will see significant playing time as one of the top three ends on the team. But however much he plays or how well he does, his best value to the team may be his understanding of leadership and what it takes to lead others into battle.
During an Illini one-day camp this summer, Nurse walked up to a reporter and struck up a conversation. Before either knew it, an hour and a half had elapsed. Nurse is special because he is conscious. He can observe himself while he partakes of life. He knows who he is and how he fits into the grand scheme of things. And he is willing to share that wisdom with whomever seeks his truth.
Nurse discussed leadership and its importance for a football team.
"I feel like I'm a leader. Everybody doesn't have to be a vocal leader. Everybody doesn't have to be in front of the media, speaking all the time. Sometimes, we need leaders in the locker room. Somebody who can sit you down and say, 'You did this right, you did this wrong, you gave good effort, you didn't give good effort.'
"Just keep everybody in line and vice versa. Because I tell them, if you see me doing something wrong, if you see me not giving effort, get on my back, man. Get on me, make sure I do everything right. That's the only way we're gonna win championships, if we make each other accountable."
What must Illini players do to create the chemistry needed to be a great team?
"You have to care for each other, you have to feel for each other. When somebody's going through some routine, you have to be able to sit back and put yourself in their shoes. Understand their emotions and understand what they're thinking about.
"Unless you can do that as a team, championships don't matter. You won't ever get championships unless you can come together like that."
Unity is especially important for the defense. All eleven players must know and carry out their assignments. If one player messes up, it destroys the game plan. There can be no unity unless everyone trusts everyone else to be equally accountable.
"I agree with that. We're all we have right now. When you hear analysts talk about our defense, we get no respect because we're a bunch of no-names. We can't get mad at that because we haven't done anything.
"We have a lot of players with inexperience. But we rally around that. We are inexperienced, but we love each other. We care for each other. Out on the field, I know right now I can't let those linebackers down. The linebackers can't let the db's down.
"It's an effect that passes around the whole defense. We cannot let each other down. We've got to bond together, love each other, care for each other. That's the most important thing."
Football is a complex game, and players must know every detail backward and forward. But what holds a team together, what really separates the great teams from the good teams, is the bond they all share. If that bond is strong enough, it can last a lifetime.
"Exactly. You're gonna know these guys for 30-40 years. I can hit one of these guys up some weekend 10 years down the road, say I'm in town and want to check in with you and see how the family's doing. That's what we're building now.
"Now winning games, that's something to reflect on. That's important, but at the end of the day it's the relationships we build. We're gonna be judged on winning. You want to be able to sit back and remember when you went 12-0 or went to the Rose Bowl. You want to be able to do things like that when you're that old. But you have to want to be with them."
That bond was enhanced this summer by a strenuous workout routine organized by Strength & Conditioning Coach Lou Hernandez. Everyone was pushed past their limits, and they benefitted by having their teammates share the workload and the responsibilities of preparing for a rugged fall schedule.
"Coach Lou really got old school on us this summer. I don't want to even think about what happened the year before we went 5-7. You're remembered for your last play from your last season.
"Lou took it personally because that's who we spend most of our time with. We're with the coaches for 3-4 months of the year. They're around, but we don't see them every day. They're out recruiting, taking little breaks. So Lou's the guy we spend the most time with.
"He is the realest coach because he's gonna get the job done, one way or the other, whether you like it or not. So I think he took it to heart, and he said, 'I'm the one who's around them every day, so I'm gonna put them on my back and get them ready for everything.' I really think he did that this summer."
Okay, the team is in great shape and dedicated to winning. Now, they must develop the confidence to know they can defeat any opponent regardless of their quality or the circumstances of the game. Nurse knows what it takes to develop that confidence.
"Confidence comes. It's a mindset of believing. I think that's the difference between this year and last year. We had a team meeting the other day, and we said, 'We've got to believe.'
"You've got to believe, you've got to believe in the man beside you, believe in what Coach (Ron) Zook is saying. He has a reason for saying it, just do it. Take the coaching, don't question it. Do exactly what they say. Just believe."
Nurse practices what he preaches. He knows his capabilities and is supremely self-confident without a hint of arrogance. When asked if he is the one to replace the graduated Will Davis as the Illini's speed rusher, the 6'-3", 260 pounder answered in the affirmative.
"Yes. I'm fully confident in my abilities to replace Will Davis, Derek Walker, all those guys. Not to knock any other defensive ends, but we all bring something different to the game.
"I came into college as a pass rusher. I had to learn how to play the run. As a defensive lineman, that takes you awhile to do because there's technique to these things. Pass rushing is just your natural ability as an athlete. Understanding what the lineman's gonna do, how they're gonna block you, their steps, where their hands are gonna come from. That's just your God-given talent that I've been blessed with.
"Now I had to learn to play the run because you don't wake up in the morning power-stepping. When you tell me to run a 40 yard dash, I'm getting into a sprinter's stance, not a power stance. So it's something I take pride in, and I think it's something we all have now.
"But in terms of my personal ability, I'm a pass rusher that can play the run. Will was the same way. He came in with pass rusher speed, and he had to learn to play the run.
"The coaches are trying to build me into my own type of player. Coach Gilmore told me he was going to build me into me. He sees what I am, and he just wants to bring that out of me. So I trust him 100%.
"We're not replacing anybody, we're just reloading."