Illini's Hawthorne making strides on defense
Illinois sophomore Terry Hawthorne briefly began his career as a wide receiver, running routes in Camp Rantoul in August with a pad on one hand because of surgery earlier in the summer to strengthen a bone that hadn't completely healed.
When he was moved to cornerback a few days before the season opener last season, the former East St. Louis High School star said he preferred playing on offense. But less than one week into spring drills, Hawthorne finally has the time to truly learn the position and the techniques, and he's already made an impression.
"I'm really a defensive player,'' Hawthorne said. "I'm a go-getter to the ball. Last year, I was rushing to get into the defense. I'm a lot more comfortable than last year. I moved over at the beginning of the season, and I had coaches in my ear at the same time I was trying to get to know the stuff. Now it's like I've been playing it for a long time.''
With two interceptions in a span of three plays late last week and another interception returned 40 yards for a touchdown during the scrimmage Saturday, the 6-foot, 185-pound Hawthorne temporarily cooled any talk about him playing both ways this fall. Even if the coaches don't want to mention it, Hawthorne would seem a strong candidate for the Wildcat, the trend in college football for a direct snap on offense to a playmaker.
For now, Hawthorne doesn't mind making those plays on defense.
"It ain't that hard,'' he said, shrugging his shoulders. "I get a pick. I'm going to the house. That's my goal.''
A defense that ranked last in the Big Ten in yards allowed (403.2 per game) and points allowed (30.2) needs all the playmakers it can get. Hawthorne's study habits and athleticism excited Illini defensive coaches.
"When we moved him to defensive back, we were already into the season,'' coach Ron Zook said. "He missed all that preseason camp. This is his first real chance to work on technique. He'll get better. He's in there watching tape on his own. He's shown coaches he wants to be a special player. How fast is he? He's as fast as he needs to be.''
A Parade All-America who was ranked the sixth best receiver in his class by Rivals, Hawthorne finished with 1,009 yards receiving and 28 touchdowns as a prep senior. And he returned four interceptions for a touchdown.
He started the final five games last season. Hawthorne forced a fumble before a momentum swung on a goal-line stand and a long drive as Illinois beat Michigan.
The following week, Hawthorne's 44-yard interception return for a touchdown ignited the Illini in a victory over Minnesota.
NOTE: Illini basketball recruit Meyers Leonard has been chosen to fill an opening created by injury for the Nike Hoop Summit on Saturday at the Rose Garden in Portland, Ore. Leonard will play for the U.S. team against the world select team. He took the place of Tobias Harris, a native of Brookville, N.Y., who broke his foot in the McDonald's All-America Game last week.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.