Tavon Wilson has lettered two years as a cornerback. Despite having to learn new things, Wilson is enjoying Vic Koenning's defense.
"I love it. I see the quarterback more, break on the ball. We get to be better athletes than we got to be in the past. It gives you more chances to make plays."
He also thinks highly of Koenning, who is also his defensive back coach.
"I love Coach Koenning. He's very hard on me because he knows how good I can be. He pushes me every day. He pushes me to be a leader and to be the best player I can be. So I love Coach Koenning for that. Sometimes he makes me mad, but I know it's for the best that he's on me that way."
Koenning knows what he is doing according to Wilson.
"Coach Koenning puts us in a lot of great situations, but sometimes he wants us to be in bad situations. We can learn from not being in the best possible situations."
Illinois designates the cornerbacks as field corners and boundary corners. Wilson is a boundary corner. While there are similarities to the previous defense, there are also differences. The boundary has run support as one of its responsibilities.
"We do a lot of the same stuff we did in the past. I probably have more deep coverage than I did in the past. I sometimes fill 8 men in the box."
Wilson brags about the teamwork and unity of the defensive players.
"There's a lot more chemistry out there. Everybody is trusting the defense. Everybody knows where everybody's gonna be at. That helps a lot when you know where your safeties are gonna be at, where your defense is gonna be at. It helps you know what you can do and what you can't do."
Why is this different than last year?
"Everybody's just trusting the scheme more, trusting what the coaches are saying. They're just taking in more than in the past."
Wilson says the bad memories from last year will not affect the team this year.
"Everybody's looking straight forward. Nobody's looking back. We're trying to get this program back where it's supposed to be. We can't do nothing about last year. Everybody's looking forward to this upcoming season. We're doing everything we can to get this program back on the map."
But don't the nightmares from games past come back to haunt you when you see them repeating?
"Sometimes in the red zone, when the offense makes a big play on us everybody says, 'Oh man, here we go again.' But we're getting past that more and more everyday. We're getting more comfortable and more confident. The closer it gets to the deadline, we're determined the offense can't score."
Wilson agrees his two previous years have given him more confidence, although his enthusiasm was tempered by having to do up-downs after mistakes in a scrimmage.
"Oh yeah, I feel a lot more confident even though I don't feel it right now. The more experience you get, the more confident you get out there. Sometimes I second guess myself, but now you see me taking more chances than I did in the past, to make more plays."
He is also accepting more of a leadership role.
"Yeah. Last year I wasn't talking very much, but I'm doing that a lot more now. I'm just trying to bring everybody along. We've got a lot of talent back there, they just haven't played as much. We're gonna be pretty good back there."
The defense doesn't always know what the Illini offense is doing because it is new also. Paul Petrino has made significant changes with the offense, but Wilson feels the defense is beginning to figure it out.
"It is more difficult because we're used to the zone reads like Coach (Mike) Locksley and Coach (Mike) Schultz ran. But now it's more of a downhill running style where we stretch teams. It's different, but we see it during the season so it's not real different."
The Illinois defense has been playing without two of their leaders this spring as Clay Nurse and Martez Wilson heal from offseason surgery. But they have been a big help to the defense, getting them fired up for scrimmages and helping them learn.
"That's Clay and Martez. They can't be out here right now, so those guys help us a lot from the sidelines. They bring more energy when somebody makes a big play. They're going around making sure everybody knows the calls. They help me out a lot, and they help the defensive line and linebackers out a lot too."
Wilson is taking on the persona of his defensive coordinator. Speaking after a major scrimmage to end the third week of spring practice, Wilson sounded like a coach when asked if it was the best effort by the defense this spring.
"Yeah, I felt like it was our best scrimmage. But we have a long way to go. We can't give up big plays. We've got to force turnovers, get more sacks, apply more pressure. We've got a long way to go on every position on defense."