After 2011, where a couple of injuries left the Illinois secondary thin weeks before the start of the season, the Illini secondary returns healthier for the upcoming season. Safety Trulon Henry believes the defensive backfield can rebound and be a real strength for the defense this year.
"We like to think that. That way, if we have that in our minds as a secondary, we would work harder knowing that the team is going to rely on us. We want to be prepared for it."
Henry is only in his second year at Illinois, but he is much older than his counterparts. Rather than let that distance him from the others, he has embraced it as an opportunity to provide maturity and leadership to a unit that has undergone quite a bit of adversity.
"Our secondary is pretty mature. It's not full of young guys, but I lead by example. We need as many vocal leaders as we do people who just go out there and show it and do it every day. Leading by example is important for me."
Two members of the Illinois secondary were stationed on offense when they came to Illinois, but ultimately Justin Green and Terry Hawthorne ended up in the defensive backfield. Henry is excited to have them back there with him.
"They're two great athletes, so it's really not hard to teach them how to play something. They both are similar in terms of energy, aggression and making tackles. Usually, a guy that comes from offense isn't naturally aggressive, but these guys are both aggressive."
In addition to his fellow defensive backs, Henry holds a lot of optimism for the entire defense. He especially took note of converted defensive tackle Craig Wilson, who is hitting his stride after having a tough go his first four years on the offensive line.
"Our front 7 is solid. We got a few things tweaked around with Craig coming off the ball now. But we're going to be fine."
The Illini added new defensive back coach Mike Gillhamer this winter. Gillhamer brings with him years of NFL experience with the Carolina Panthers. From the start, he commanded the entire secondary's respect. The improvement is noticeable according to Henry.
"He brings some energy and a lot of technique. He's like a technique specialist, so he's a guru on footwork. Footwork, hand placement, and he's bringing a lot of technique that we're putting a lot of focus on, and that's going to make us better."
Footwork is one of the main things Henry is looking to improve upon before this upcoming season.
"My footwork is the main thing I want to work on. That's the main thing coach has been on my back about, and I want to get it perfect. My backpedaling and my footwork."
When talking to Henry, it's clear he's a dedicated student of the game of football. Fittingly, he relates practice to class and says that proper study habits are key.
"In a way, yeah. (Gillhamer) is a veteran in the NFL, so when he came here, it was like we wanted to listen to him and learn as much as possible. We're students of the game, so when you get a ‘professor' that's been teaching for a long time, you want to pay attention."
Gillhamer's personality is definitely one that commands attention. He has an innate ability to turn the intensity on when he's on the field, but Henry says his demeanor is quite the opposite in meetings.
"It's funny because he's soft spoken in the meeting room, very soft spoken. Then he gets out here, and he yells. His energy out here is great. It's a little tricky, but he wants to see energy."
Henry's role has expanded off the field this spring as well. He's served as a mentor to some of his fellow teammates, something Henry hopes will help them mature.
"I'm like a big brother. I had Evan Wilson and Alex Hill in study hall recently. I was giving them advice on being in love and all that. They always ask me about it. You know, stuff like that. Being a man and being on your own far away from home."
And if you ask him, sharing is something that's inherent to him.
"I love it. I have five little brothers, so it's natural for me."
One of his little brothers is former Illini Arrelious Benn, who was making his mark this season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before a late knee injury sidelined him. Henry says his not-so-little brother is making good progress, however.
"Rejus is doing great. He bounced back from the surgery, and he's recovering well. It was tough, but he's a tough guy."
The NFL lockout is something Benn has had to deal with. NFL receiver Chad Ochocinco has made plans to play Major League Soccer in the event of the lockout carrying over into the season. Henry joked that Benn could probably do the same.
"If he could he would. We both actually started out playing soccer and both played awhile, so that would be kind of fun."