CHAMPAIGN — Cornerback Darius Mosely may not start for the Illini football team Saturday at Indiana. But if the freshman from O’Fallon doesn’t, it will hardly be a demotion.
Mosely was pushed into a starting role the last two games due to an ankle sprain to sophomore V’Angelo Bentley. But the way Mosely distinguished himself last Saturday in the overtime loss at Penn State convinced coaches something they suspected all along: Mosely is ahead of the curve and is a key cog to future Illini defenses.
Bentley is expected to be healthy enough to resume his role as starter and if that’s the case, Mosely will be the No. 1 nickel back and a key reserve.
But after rising up late when Penn State twice tried to isolate plays against him, coaches are gushing over his potential.
Tim Beckman has a keen perspective on Mosely because in addition to being the head coach, Beckman is personally coaching the cornerbacks this season.
“He’s a phenomenal young man,” Beckman said Monday. “He understands the game of football. He studies the game. He’s mature for his age.
“When I walk into the meeting room, there is some talent in that cornerback room. We’ve done a great job of recruiting corners. He’s only a freshman, but in the future that’s going to be one of the strong suits of the classes we’ve recruited.”
With 31 of the top 33 players on the defensive depth chart returning next season, Beckman is hoping that playing youth this season will be rewarded next year.
The Illini staff has been keen on Mosely since they started recruiting him as a cornerback and receiver who earned National Honor Society recognition and graduated a semester early specifically so he could enroll at Illinois in January. That made him eligible to participate in spring practice.
Mosely picked Illinois over Vanderbilt, Michigan State, Iowa and Arizona State, in part because of the chance to play early and to play close to home.
At first, Mosely told his original position coach Steve Clinkscale (now at Cincinnati) that he wouldn’t push the early graduation. “I told him I was just going to enjoy my (final) semester of high school,” Mosely said.
“But he told me another cornerback was coming in early (Charleston’s Dillan Cazley) and I thought, ‘Well, that’s going to be my competition, so I might as well come in early.’”
To do it, Mosely said he crammed seven or eight classes into a semester and wedged two English classes into the same semester.
Now, Mosely said it was a good decision to push for an early graduation.
“Enrolling early gave me a big edge,” he said. “It helped me get on the field.”
When Mosely found himself on the field in the season opener against Southern Illinois, he admitted to being nervous and a little overwhelmed.
“I was just out of high school and I was going against grown men, 20 and 21 years old,” he said. “I had some jitters. But now I guess it’s just the game of football. I’ve settled in. I know I’m not a freshman anymore.”
Maybe so, but Penn State knew that was a freshman lined up at corner when it decided to throw consecutive one-on-one end zone passes at him late in last week’s game.
Each time Mosely was alone covering Penn State’s senior Brandon Moseby-Felder.
And each time Mosely rose to the challenge, getting his hands on throws from Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg to deny the Nittany Lions a touchdown.
It was a major confidence boost for a freshmen who is feeling like he belongs.
Defensive coordinator Tim Banks said while playing freshmen can be a test of a coach’s patience, the reward comes when he sees a player like Mosely making progress.
“He has taken his share of lumps so to see some plays finally go his way was good, because you see how hard he works,” Banks said.
“He’s very competitive. He’s extremely fluid. He can twist and turn and run on a dime. We think as he gets stronger and more experienced, he’s definitely going to be a good player in this program.”