CHAMPAIGN — The realization of how much older he is than the rest of the defense didn't really hit Del'Shawn Phillips until training camp.
But when people brought it up to him, he looked around to see that he was the team's lone senior on the Illinois football defense.
“You’ve got to be on your ‘P’s’ and ‘Q’s’ at all times," Phillips said. "You’re a leader. You’ve got a lot of people looking at you watching your every move, making sure you’re doing right because they’re going to follow."
He led the Illini last year with 85 tackles and had four tackles for a loss, a sack and a pass breakup.
Since then, he's boosted his weight up to 228 pounds — he was listed at 220 last year — and stands at 6-foot-2.
"I’m faster, stronger, quicker and more muscle mass. I’m excited with my body right now," Phillips said.
Defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson and head coach Lovie Smith preach takeaways on defense, and to do that Nickerson wants all 11 guys at the football.
Phillips is already there.
“You see the leadership, you see the confidence level go up," Nickerson said. "You see him getting around the ball a lot more."
Last year after fellow linebacker Jake Hansen went down at the end of training camp to a season-ending knee injury, Phillips slid from his position as a "Mike" linebacker to the "Will" linebacker spot.
It wasn't Phillips' natural position, but he sat next to Hansen every day in film and picked his brain.
Hansen's return should move Phillips back to the Mike linebacker role, though Nickerson said there's no depth chart yet.
“(Hansen's return) allows for us to get Jake back in his natural position and get Del’Shawn in a natural position along with Dele Harding," Nickerson said. “It gives those guys an opportunity to play where we want them to play, where they fit and, for a lot of those guys, it's an opportunity to make plays for us."
Phillips is more comfortable in the Mike role. Some of that comes with the fact that it's the primary role he's always played, but the rest is what the position entails.
Through the first three days of training camp, Phillips has been loud — a near prerequisite for the position.
“Just being able to be the vocal guy on defense, the leader, and being able to pinpoint things I see and call out things," Phillips said of his comfort level at Mike linebacker. "Being vocal, that’s really the main thing."
The Illini ranked last in the Big Ten last year in rush defense, and Phillips said that wasn't a product of a lack of skill, but rather a lack of focus.
But Phillips said he saw his teammates locked in when spring practices started, and it's continued into fall camp.
Position groups initiate group chats to set up time to watch film absent of coaches, and are locked in on techniques and placement.
There's a confidence in Phillips about the Illini defense.
“I expect big things from it this year," he said.
After practice at the campus recreation fields, the football team and coaching staff went to the ground where the new Illinois Football Performance Center is being built.
Athletic Director Josh Whitman addressed the team and the construction workers before the coaching staff and team signed the final steel beam to be put in place.
The white beam was then hoisted up and placed at the top of the structure.
“It was pretty exciting," Nickerson said. "We’ve kind of been walking by and going to practice focused on football. Now we're able to look up and say, ‘Man, there’s been a lot of progress.'"
There was a sense of symbolism in the placement of the final beam.
Smith has been clear in his words that the Illini will take a step forward in his third year as head coach.
"Things are playing out the way we envisioned," Smith said.
NOTES: Defensive back Nick Walker was carted off the field after suffering an injury while going up for a ball against Mike Dudek. Walker's helmet came off in the collision. There was no update immediately after on Walker's status. "Whenever you get carted off, there's concern," Smith said. "But he could move everything. He didn't have any issues from the eye test. We'll take every precaution with Nick." ... Sophomore receiver Dominic Stampley has continued to play well at the receiver position, breaking free from defenders for several nice catchers. Stampley played at Champaign Centennial before going to Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College last year.