CHAMPAIGN — Many of the freshmen the University of Illinois has turned to during this rebuilding football season will be much more ready to play next year.
Offensive linemen such as Larry Boyd and Vederian Lowe already have the size, but desperately need the experience they are soaking up now.
A defensive lineman such as Isaiah Gay needs a full year in the weight room as he gains bulk and muscle.
A few are closer to being ready, like running back Mike Epstein (hobbled now with a foot injury) and wide receiver Ricky Smalling, who leads the team in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.
And then there’s safety Bennett Williams, who just might be the most Big Ten-ready freshman of the bunch.
Only a few people knew much about Williams when he showed up as part of coach Lovie Smith’s 2017 recruiting class, mainly because he was the lone Californian in a group of 25.
The one who knew him best — and is not surprised to see that Williams ranks second in tackles and is the team leader with two interceptions — is defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson, who is most responsible for bringing Williams from Campbell, Calif., to Champaign.
Nickerson played college football with Bennett Williams’ father, Garey, at Cal. They’ve remained friends and Nickerson followed Bennett Williams’ high school career and knew he had 15 interceptions his final two seasons at St. Francis High.
“I knew quite a bit about him,” Nickerson said. “He’s a little further along than I thought he would be, but I knew he would come in and be an impact player for us. I just didn’t know how soon but I always felt he could be a really good player at this level.
“In high school he played cornerback, safety, receiver and returned kicks. He probably had a few reps at running back in there.”
Nickerson described Williams as a smart, instinctive, fearless player and blossoming team leader who quickly takes to coaching and who plays beyond his years.
As Nickerson speaks, it becomes clear he once spoke this way about a player who last year led the Illini in tackles. That player is his son with the same name, Hardy Nickerson, who is on the roster of the Cincinnati Bengals.
“They’re very similar,” the defensive coordinator said. “When it comes to instincts and their understanding of the game and how quickly it translates to the field for him, he’s like a quarterback on defense. He’s very similar to Hardy Jr.”
Williams is pleased Illinois finally took steps to be a better defense last week, even though the Illini lost to fifth-ranked Wisconsin, 24-10. After leading Illinois with 14 tackles the week before against Minnesota, Williams had five tackles and an interception against the Badgers.
“Now it’s about keeping the foot on the gas pedal,” he said. “There’s no secret. Feeding off (the Wisconsin) game, I think our defense will feel a lot better about our play. I think we should be a lot more confident against Purdue because that’s a game we could definitely win.”
Williams said he has a great relationship with his father’s former teammate, Hardy Nickerson, but also credits the influence of first-year safeties coach Donnie Abraham, who played nine seasons as an NFL cornerback.
“That’s my guy right there,” Williams said. “He’s not a yeller, not a get-in-your-face guy. But I connect with him really well. He understands what we’re going through and he really works with us. He’s definitely helped me, I know that.”
At one time, Illinois was starting a freshman safety (Williams) and a pair of true freshmen corners in Tony Adams and Nate Hobbs. Adams is now injured but Hobbs is getting positive reviews from Nickerson and Smith.
Adams and Hobbs have each struggled at times, mainly because they need the experience and will benefit by being physically stronger as sophomores.