Illini Scramble To Find Defensive Back Depth

The Fighting Illini football team, already thin in the defensive backfield, has now lost two lettermen expected to see much playing time. Without Walt Aikens and now Supo Sanni, Illini coaches are scrambling to find sufficient depth at cornerback and safety to play 12 rugged games of high level football.

The word today that starting safety Supo Sanni had surgery on a ruptured Achilles Tendon, added to the loss of Walter Aikens earlier, leaves Illinois needing more defensive backs. Running back Justin Green and receiver Steve Hull have moved to defense to help fill the void.

Illini head coach Ron Zook described what happened to Sanni.

"It's something that usually happens to older guys. It was a freak thing. He was pushing off. He's positive. He understands he now has a redshirt year. We'll get him back next year."

Travon Bellamy, who was rotating with Sanni and Trulon Henry at the two safety spots, figures to see more playing time. But he wasn't celebrating. He spoke for the whole team when lamenting Sanni's loss.

"I feel bad for Supo. He worked his butt off all year. To go down with a freak injury like's just for other guys to step up."

Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning is having to reshuffle the deck after the dual losses.

"It hurt with the Walt deal. It was tough. Walt's gonna transfer, and I hate that for him. And then Shoop yesterday, it was such a freak deal. We'll take the guys we've got and just go to the next deal."

Running back Justin Green, recruited by Ohio State and others as a defensive back, voluntarily chose to try cornerback before Sanni's injury. While the offense hoped to have him play on their side of the ball, Green seems to be warming to the position.

"This is something I wanted to do. I like running back, but I saw that there was an opportunity on defense. Coming out of high school, I wasn't too keen on playing defensive back, but now that I'm learning I kind of like it. Right now I'm focused on defense. That's where I'm leaning towards more too and want to play in the future."

Green has made an impression on defense according to Zook.

"I don't think there's any question he'll be on the field. I don't know where it will be for sure, but he'll play."

Koenning regrets that Green has missed so many repetitions from spring, summer and all of fall camp. But it is what it is, and Green does at least have special skills that can be conducive to cornerback.

"Justin has been over there since it looked like Walt was gonna lose his appeal. We need numbers over there. He's doing a good job. He can obviously run. Athletically, I think he shows the skills. Life doesn't always come at you the right way. It's what you make of it."

Zook reminded that Terry Hawthorne moved to cornerback last year about this time and learned quickly. He said that Hull had an interception in the two minute drill at Thursday's practice. Hull played safety in high school and is willing to do whatever will help the team.

"It's a big change," Hull admits. "Coach Koenning told me the situation, and this is the best way I can help the team out. I'm just gonna take it day by day."

Hull has been working at both safety spots to see what he can do. Right now, he's listed behind Henry at free safety, a position that requires much run support. He says he is willing fill a hole.

Hull enjoys receiver, but he is keeping an open mind.

"In a perfect world, I'd like to be at receiver. But who knows. If this season goes better than expected I might stay. The door's still open to go both ways or to go back there. It's really a season to season decision.

"I like it back there. I feel comfortable back there. When I get the coverages down and get a feel on what I need to do, I'll pounce on it."

Henry has been trying to help both Hull and Green as best he can. Hull receives more of his advice since they are playing the same position.

"He's learning on the fly man. I try to simplify the defense because the defense is kind of complicated. When Coach tells him something, I tell him it's basically like this, basically like that. I give him the elementary version of it.

"Both of them are pretty aggressive. They run to the ball, they're fast. So there's not much they need except mentally learning the schemes."

With Green moving to Tavon Wilson's corner spot, Wilson has been tried at safety to get a feel for it. More than likely Wilson will remain at corner, but Koenning is researching every possible angle to provide talent and depth for the two safety spots.

"I think we're relearning. We haven't been perfect there by any means, reading our keys and that. It's almost going back to basics and learning fundamentals again. You'd kind of like to be game-planning, and yet you're going back to square one and relearning. I'm confident the guys we've got will do the best they can. That's all anybody can ask."

Without question, the loss of Aikens and Sanni is a tremendous blow to the Illinois effort. But no one is giving up. Koenning has a belief system that has been positively reinforced by the actions of Illini players.

"We've got guys on offense who said they would do whatever we needed to do. We've got some really really good young men on this team. We just believe if you do right, right will follow. Our guys continue to try to do right."

With resolve of steel, Zook provided a bottom line.

"It's part of the game. You've just got to keep going."

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