Walter Aikens was a three-sport star at Harding High School in Charlotte, North Carolina, but he didn't have a large number of college scholarship offers. His school struggles against the bigger schools in the Charlotte area, so few colleges knew about him.
"We play some pretty high-ranked teams in the city, so our team is never really a powerhouse," Aikens explains. "When I was there, I tried to turn the whole program around."
Illinois assistant coach Kurt Beathard noticed, and he liked what he saw. Aikens combines quickness with intelligence and great leaping ability, making him an ideal athlete for several college positions.
He began Camp Rantoul as third string safety, but he has improved rapidly. With little fanfare, he was placed on the kickoff team and saw his first action at Ohio State. He had never before played in front of 105,000 people.
"It was amazing. I was like, 'Wow, you're really here now. So you've got to perform.' It was great. An experience of a lifetime. First college play. I just went out there and gave my all."
The opening kickoff was his only play since the Illini were shut out. But it got his feet wet, enough to learn things about himself.
"I wasn't nervous, just anxious. I was so excited to get in, everything I was worried about went away when I went on the field."
Aikens saw more time against Penn State. He is excited for the opportunity.
"To be a true freshman and get a chance to play, that's amazing. Not many get to do it. I feel honored to be able to do it."
As most freshmen say, the speed of the game was his biggest adjustment.
"In high school, I was always the one who was faster than everybody. Now it's just adjusting to their speed. I'm getting the hang of it."
The 6'-1", 185 pounder was an excellent high school quarterback, but the move to safety was not a major problem for him.
"Not really because I played quarterback and safety. I just had to choose a position, so I chose safety because I like the defensive side of the ball."
The confident young man was asked what things he most needed to improve.
"Just coverage, and getting ready to get in the big spotlight. I've learned all the plays and stuff, so I'm ready to go with that."
Illinois receivers are talented enough to give defensive backs a challenge daily in practice.
"I love it. I love the competition. Going against Rejus (Arrelious Benn), (Jarred) Fayson and people like that gets me excited every day in practice. I'm getting more confidence."
Aikens was the star of his high school basketball team and was an outstanding track man as well. Will he miss those other sports?
"I probably will, but football is a full-time job, so I'm cool with that."
Aikens says he hasn't gotten homesick and has enjoyed college so far.
"It's nice. I'm living the college life, going to school, having fun with the fellas, everything. It's real cool. I always take care of my academics, so I'm good academic-wise."
The Illini secondary needs more depth at the safety spots, and Aikens is among those vying for playing time there.
"I'm second string in back of Donsay (Hardeman). I'm expecting to get more playing time this week. I'm going all-out in practice."
Illinois coach Ron Zook only plays freshmen who show they are ready to handle the rigors of college ball. He sees potential in Aikens.
"I look down the road, and I see Walt getting better and better and better. We've said a lot of times that just because a guy's not ready to play in the first game or even the second game, it doesn't mean that he's not going to be able to. If a guy can help you, I think he can play."