Illinois secondary trying to fill holes in spring practice

For Illinois defensive back Eaton Spence, it’s taken a long time to fully realize that his teammates in the secondary, whom he watched compete all season long, are not coming back.

The Illinois football team lost five key contributors from last year’s secondary to graduation. Justin Green, Terry Hawthorne, Supo Sanni, Ashante Williams and Patrick Nixon-Youman all saw major playing time as seniors in 2012. Additionally, Steve Hull has been moved from safety to wide receiver for his final year of eligibility in 2013.

“It’s weird because ever since I’ve been here, they’ve been here,” Spence said. “So you go into the locker room to get dressed and they’re not there, you’re like, ‘Dang, they’re gone for real.’” 

Illinois’ practice Wednesday marked the midway point of its spring schedule, which culminates with its Spring Game under the lights at Memorial Stadium on April 12. But with seven practices left, the Illini secondary is still a work in progress.

The cupboard is bare, at least in terms of experience, but the departures leave room for new faces to make names for themselves. Redshirt freshmen Taylor Barton and B.J. Bello, along with sophomores V’Angelo Bentley, Eaton Spence, and senior Ben Mathis are expected to fill some of the empty shoes.

“For the most part, the guys who need to get better are getting better,” defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. “We’ve got a lot of young puppies out there, and I think those guys are really making strides.” 

Banks, who handles the coaching duties of the secondary, said no single player has stood out in the spring, but that it’s been a “work by committee.” Head coach Tim Beckman said Mathis and the injured Thomas have taken it upon themselves to teach their younger teammates. 

Thomas started nine games in 2012 in place of the injured Hull, and is the lone returning starter to the Illinois secondary. A leg injury has limited his practice time this spring, but Banks said he has been progressing well and he fully expects him to be ready to go come training camp. 

The Illini need the defensive leadership of Thomas and Mathis — a former walk-on. Along with the five seniors in the secondary, Illinois lost four key contributors from its defensive line (Michael Buchanan, Glenn Foster, Akeem Spence and Justin Staples).

Banks has liked what he’s seen so far from the line, even though he said he doesn’t think they have any “big names.”

Illinois now turns its focus north toward Chicago, where it will have practice from Gately Stadium at 5:30 p.m. Friday. The scrimmage will give Chicago area prospects a chance to see the Illini and give the many Chicago-area players the chance to practice in front of friends and family. Gately stadium is on Chicago’s south side and seats a capacity of roughly 8,000 people.

Beckman and Director of Athletics Mike Thomas will address the media Friday afternoon from Soldier Field before the practice. They are expected to discuss Illinois’ Chicago Homecoming game against Washington at Soldier Field on Sept. 14. Thomas is also expected to touch on the Assembly Hall renovation project. 

“What’s unique about it is it’s Easter (weekend),” Beckman said. “And I know Good Friday is a tough day to practice on, but I’m also giving my players that live up there the opportunity, after that scrimmage is over, to go with their families and spend Easter with them.”

Sean can be reached at and @sean_hammond.