Supo Sanni lettered last fall for Illinois as a sophomore, but much of his playing time occurred on special teams. He has been playing with the first team all spring in new coordinator Vic Koenning's defense.
"I'm loving the scheme. It works better for me because I'm able to play more aggressively. It's about knowing what to do and reading my keys. I can come downhill and make plays.
"We can play man to man for five straight plays and then go to zone and mix it up. We can go man one side and zone another."
Besides fitting into the new defense, Sanni has worked hard during the winter to improve his body.
"I made tremendous strides. I came to Illinois at 205 pounds and now I'm at 225 pounds. I'm stronger and faster thanks to the Strength and Conditioning program."
And he has grown up, giving him a better understanding of what he needs to do to help his team.
"I'm watching more film and becoming a better student of the game. I'm trying to make big plays and the plays I should be making."
Sanni describes other ways he has improved since he first arrived on campus.
"My man-to-man skills and being able to break on balls (is better). I'm a better student of the game. I want to become a better leader and be able to call out defenses. I want to become a leader to the younger guys and be a big part of this defense."
Different terminology and technique take time to learn, for fans as well as the players. Sanni says the typical description for his position doesn't really seem to fit now.
"There is a free safety and a cat safety. I play free, and I think it's more of a strong safety. Different coverages have different responsibilities."
Koenning coaches the defensive backs in addition to coordinating the defense. The Homewood-Flossmoor product feels that helps him understand the defense better.
"It definitely helps. It's his scheme and he's always in the room with you. He knows what to do."
What does he think of his new coach?
"I think of him as having two personalities. When he's off the field he's calm, cool and collected, but when he's on the field it's all about business. Coach Vic has high expectations for us, so he's never going to let us down and we'll do our best not to let him down."
It appears to be a mutual admiration society as Koenning praises Sanni as well.
"He's big, tall, and rangy. He bends his knees as well as any big guy that I've seen. I think he's got a bright future. I'm jacked out of my mind that he's here. He needs to work on the fundamentals and learning the game."
Since Offensive Coordinator Paul Petrino is also new this year, Sanni was asked about him.
"Paul Petrino is always yelling and running. He gets everybody fired up."
Sanni sees a new attitude taking shape for the Illini defense.
"It's a way different attitude. We're trying to bring a different camaraderie to this defense. We want to be high energy and run to the football. We want to do the things that get big turnovers."