CHAMPAIGN — When Illinois hosts Western Kentucky Saturday, it won’t be the first time head coaches Lovie Smith of Illinois and Mike Sanford of Western Kentucky have greeted one another.
Sanford made sure of that on a chance meeting at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.
“When I was coaching at Notre Dame (offensive coordinator) about a year-and-a-half ago, I was taking my family on vacation and we were at the airport waiting for our flight,” Sanford said this week.
“And Lovie walks by with his wife. They were getting on a flight, too.
“I told my wife, ‘Hey, that’s Lovie Smith. He’s coached in a Super Bowl.’
“I stopped and talked to him a little bit. My son, Gunnar, has a blanket and he calls it his ‘lovie.’ So we got a picture of my son, Gunnar, holding his lovie and me with Lovie Smith.
“He’s such a nice person. Everything I’ve heard from people who have worked with him or for him say he’s a cream of the crop guy. I’ll be humbled to be on the same field as someone who has accomplished as much as he has in football.
“He’s a great representation of everything that’s great about the game of football and coaching.”
Defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson was practically jumping out of his skin this week, excited about the play of a linebacker he has coached and helped grow.
No, not Illini middle linebacker Tre Watson, who recovered a fumble and intercepted a pass last weekend in Illinois’ 24-21 victory over Ball State.
No, not Del’Shawn Phillips, Illinois’ weakside linebacker who led the team with 16 tackles.
Nickerson was proud of both of those players, but the linebacker who had him buzzing early this week was his son, also named Hardy Nickerson.
“Young Hardy,” as he’s often called, was an undrafted free agent following his senior year at Illinois and made the Cincinnati Bengals’ 53-man roster. He’ll be eligible to play in Cincinnati’s season opener Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens.
“I’m fired up about that, oh, yeah,” said the Illini coach, who played 16 seasons in the National Football League as a linebacker for four teams (Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, Green Bay).
“When your kids have dreams and goals and they achieve those things, it’s pretty special.”
When Young Hardy survived the Bengals’ final cutdown, the proud papa couldn’t resist making a phone call.
“I called him and said, ‘Hey, man, you’re an NFL linebacker. How about that?'”
“Young Hardy” was a defensive star at Cal for three seasons, then transferred to Illinois for his senior season after his father was named Lovie Smith’s defensive coordinator. He led the Illini with 107 tackles in 2016.
A total of 18 former Illini players are on 2017 opening day NFL rosters: OT Jeff Allen (Texans), WR Geronimo Allison (Packers), WR Arrelious Benn (Jaguars), CB Vontae Davis (Colts), S Clayton Fejedelem (Bengals), TE Michael Hoomanawanui (Saints), TE Matt LaCosse (Giants), DE Corey Liuget (Chargers), LB Whitney Mercilus (Texans), DE Dawuane Smoot (Jaguars), DT Akeem Spence (Lions), DE Jihad Ward (Raiders) and DB Tavon Wilson (Lions) are all on opening-day rosters.
Running back Josh Ferguson is on the Colts’ injured reserve list.
On NFL practice squads are OL Ted Karras (Patriots), DL Gimel President (Texans) and DE Carroll Phillips (Jaguars).
- Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said the team will gain the services of freshman offensive lineman Alex Palczewski this week. Palczewski, who worked as a starter at times during training camp, missed the opener with an injury. McGee promised some changes on the offensive line. “Getting Alex back will be really good for us,” McGee said. “We’re going to shuffle the deck some and try to put the pieces to the puzzle back together.”
- Christian DiLauro and Larry Boyd, projected as starters, were withheld for the first quarter of the Ball State game as some kind of internal disciplinary matter. Then center Doug Kramer left in the second quarter with a knee injury and did not return. Coaches have been guarded about Kramer’s status moving forward.