Clay Nurse is a thinking man's football player. The intelligent and philosophical product of Beltsville, Maryland, understands the complexities of the game and can simplify them for the uninitiated. He is a great leader with his teammates, offering suggestions as well as encouragement.
Nurse is a redshirt senior at Illinois, and most players who have been in school five years say the time has gone extremely fast. Nurse is conscious and remembers more detail than most, so his comments differ.
"You know what, it went with the right timing. As I look back, sure it seems like I just came to the University of Illinois. But it feels like I've been here for five years. It really does. The shoulder surgeries definitely slowed down my progression and advancement as a player. But I don't dwell on it. It's something I had to deal with."
Nurse wears a protective brace for a shoulder last operated on last winter. He will play the season to his utmost ability, but he explains that his health is not perfect.
"It's never going to be 100%. When you have surgery, they put something artificial in there to fix it. But it's not your body healing naturally. So it's never going to be 100%, but it will be functional."
Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning brought scheme changes that excite most Illini players. They probably excite Nurse also, but he downplays their importance. As a bottom line guy, he understands what must happen regardless of the defensive alignments.
"You've still got to play the run, you've still got to play the pass. I don't care if you give them a pretty name or an exotic name or whatever, when it comes down to it, if they run the ball you'd better stick your helmet in there.
"I don't care what position they play, what pretty name they give it, what the media says to glamorize the position, just let them know if they run the ball you'd better stick your helmet up in there."
Yes, but isn't it true the Illini will have a more aggressive style this year than the recent past?
"You don't have to be in a blitzing scheme, a 4-3, 3-4 or 5-3 scheme to be an aggressive defense. You be an aggressive defense by playing aggressive. If guys want to glamorize it to make people cope with it better, be more soothing to someone, then that's good. To me, I'm gonna make sure we play aggressive. We're gonna come off the ball as hard and fast as possible."
He agrees the defense will attack more than in the past, and Illini players have made progress since the spring.
"It came along pretty well. We're going to be a lot more aggressive because that's the nature of our coach. I think the defense really embodies what Coach Vic is. We're gonna try to do our best to do what he wants us to do."
It also helps having middle linebacker Martez Wilson healthy. Nurse agrees, although he places no more importance on Wilson than any other defender.
"When Martez went down, we had a capable guy in Ian Thomas last year. Martez coming back, he's another capable guy. I'm enjoying having him back there because he's just another weapon. We can use him in so many different ways and do so many different things."
Nurse shares his understanding of defensive needs with the younger players. It requires a 100% commitment through the duration of each play and every play thereafter.
"We let them know we're gonna be a disciplined team. We let them know we're gonna run to the football. We're going to be an active defense. A lot of these guys come in, they make a sack or something and just stop. We want them to know that after you make that sack, you run to whoever has the ball. Whoever has the ball, you're gonna take off and run towards it."
Nurse was furious at the misrepresentations some fans made of the Illinois collapse in 2009. He wanted to set them straight, even suggesting he do a blog on a free internet website to correct all the inaccuracies. The powers that be thought it best he forego that exercise since it was unlikely to change anyone's mind. And this is a new year with new opportunities.
Nurse was willing to be extremely specific about what has already transpired, but he is reluctant to raise expectations or make predictions on what is yet to transpire.
"Other schools have guys on scholarship too, and their coaches are going to prepare well. We'll see where the defense stands when the games get here."