Sophomore cornerback Pat Nixon-Youman came to Illinois as a quick cover cornerback. He could stay with any Illini receiver until a severe injury a year ago spring necessitated immediate surgery. An abdominal muscle tore away from his pelvis. He was deeply disturbed by the turn of events.
"It was rough from an injury standpoint because I never suffered an injury before. I just lost it a little bit. My coaches stayed behind me and everybody stayed behind me. I got through it."
He got his desire to compete back, but his body was slower to recover. He made a gallant effort to play last fall, practicing every day. But he didn't have the speed and quickness needed for his position. According to his recruiting coach Dan Disch, he is still not back to normal.
"He's quicker. I don't think he's all the way back. Even he'll tell you he's not 100% yet, but he's getting a burst back.
"He had a major overhaul. Some said he wasn't gonna make it back. It was a car wreck kind of deal. He chased someone down the other day. I think he's got his speed back. His quickness is coming. He's working hard to try to get it together."
The Middleburg High School graduate out of Jacksonville, Florida, agreed that immediate surgery was essential. But being a fighter, he disdains the notion his career might have ended prematurely.
"Yeah, they said if I didn't have surgery right away, I might not ever have recovered. At the same time, I think I'd try to fight through it."
As with any surgery, the fear of reinjury is a barrier to healing.
"It took me awhile before I stopped babying it. In the fall I was still kind of favoring it. In 6:00ams I was kind of favoring it. I think I was just scared of it happening again. My coach told me not to think about it, just try to go with it."
Nixon-Youman played well in spring ball, maintaining second-team status. But he agrees with Disch he still is not all the way recovered.
"No, I haven't got all of it back. It's all gonna come back with time. I think I'm pretty close to it."
Listed generously at 5'-10", 175, Nixon-Youman needs his quickness.
"I play the field-side corner. The field-side corner is more like the quickness cover guys, and the boundary side is more like the big physical guys that can get in and help with run support. On the field side we have more man coverage."
His competition is Terry Hawthorne, who has impressed with his speed and athleticism. But Nixon-Youman isn't ready to concede playing time without a battle.
"Right now, me and Terry are the guys so we're gonna compete every day, do our best and see what happens. I'm just here taking my roll as it comes."
He is uplifted by the new additions to the coaching staff and the new defensive schemes. Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning is also his defensive backfield coach.
"I really love the new coaching staff. Great. Coach Koenning is a great guy. At first coming in he didn't know me and I didn't know him. So it was a matter of time. I think he's gonna push us to the limit. I love it. He don't care, he's gonna push you to your limit."
It has also been helpful to play against a receiver corps that is highly rated. Coordinator Paul Petrino's offense keeps him on his toes.
"It's rapid, and it makes us push ourselves along with the receivers. It's better for all of us, offense and defense as a whole. It gives us more competition, more things for us to work on."