Clay Nurse gained notoriety for Illinois last fall by sacking Terrelle Pryor in the Ohio State game. He continued showing glimpses of his potential, but he became increasingly limited by a recurring shoulder separation. He admitted after the season that lack of strength in his shoulder prevented him from performing his best.
After his second shoulder surgery last winter, Nurse needed to sit out all scrimmaging this spring to protect his recovering shoulder.
"It's just a precautionary thing. They just want to be safe."
That didn't stop Nurse from doing all the spring drills with his teammates. It sometimes hurt to participate, but he had to be out there.
"My shoulder is about 75-80%, which is good enough for me. There's been a couple tweaks here and there, but that was expected when you're trying to get back into the game. It's kind of hard to sit and watch everyone play and them tell me I can't play. Don't show me candy and then don't let me eat it."
Whether participating or watching, Nurse provided strong leadership this spring. He wanted to do that last year also, but maturity and experience make it easier.
"Just step up and be more vocal. Last year, I was just a guy trying to figure my way out, how I fit into the defense. This year, I kind of know who I am as a player, so it's a lot easier for me to figure out what I'm doing."
The Beltsville, Maryland, product still has plenty he wishes to improve upon as a defensive end.
"I'm trying to become more mentally sound with the game. Take it beyond just X's and O's. When I'm on the field, be able to see what's going on and decipher plays as fast as possible."
He believes new defensive coordinator Vic Koenning will get the best out of him and his teammates. He's been pleased with the progress of the defense.
"The defense has been doing pretty good. It's only a benefit we have a perfectionist as a leader because those goals are a long way for us. He demands so much from us, I think it's the perfect situation.
"His goal is for everyone to get more out of their games. He doesn't want to see a difference between the ones and twos. There will be, but when he's coaching he's coaching everyone exactly the same."
Koenning has been preaching turnovers to his defenders. Nurse expects that to pay dividends in the fall.
"That's one of our goals. We're going to run to the ball, we're going to tackle in numbers, and we're going to take the ball away. Generating turnovers is something we work on every day, and we're going to keep getting turnovers.
"For too long we've been at the bottom of the country, and we've got to change that right now."
The 6'-3", 260 pounder compares this spring favorably with previous springs.
"A lot better this spring. We got tons more turnovers. We're a lot more sound defensively. We're a lot more disciplined, at least we're on that road. We don't make the same mistakes over again."
What's the biggest difference between last year's and this year's defense?
"Discipline. The coaches don't short-change us. The coaches make sure we're going 100 miles an hour every time."
Some defenders had to learn new positions. All had to learn new terminology with a change in defensive coordinators. But in Nurse's view, little else has changed.
"We had an aggressive scheme last season, and we have an aggressive scheme this season. The only difference is just play. There's no more reading and reacting and fill this gap. We still have to play fundamentals and read our keys."