CHAMPAIGN — With three minutes left in the third quarter of last year's game against Minnesota, Nate Hobbs leapt at the five-yard line in an attempt to pick off Minnesota quarterback Demry Croft.
Instead, the ball bounced off Hobbs' hands and into the arms of teammate Stanley Green.
The play gnaws at Hobbs. He read it perfectly. He saw his receiver look back and widen his eyes in anticipation of the ball.
In a perfect world, Hobbs, a cornerback for the Illini, would have come down with the ball for his first career interception. Instead, he finished his freshman year without a pick, but still took home BTN.com All-Freshman honors while playing in 12 game with 10 starts. He had 48 tackles, two tackles for losses, a sack, two pass breakups and a force fumble.
“It’s all right," Hobbs said. "I’m coming back this year. I’m going to cause havoc for the other team and I’m going to get some interceptions."
Illinois football head coach Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson preach takeaways.
At training camp on Wednesday, Smith took a moment to remind Hobbs that he's still searching for the first interception.
“Nate has to cross that barrier," Smith said. "I mentioned that (Wednesday) to him, ‘Hey, you realize you haven’t intercepted a ball since you’ve been here. That’s big because you’re going to have opportunities.' We play a lot of man coverage and he has had opportunities, but those will come."
Hobbs is playing as a 6-foot cornerback at 183 pounds who has always relied on his strength as an asset of his game, even if his weight may not show it.
It helped him last year not get bullied by bigger, more experienced, receivers. His speed, he said, helps against smaller receivers.
“Nate Hobbs has probably as much talent as anybody around," Smith said. "He can jump out of the gym, good speed and quickness, all of that. He’s a confident player. You have to have a certain mindset as a cornerback. He has that. Everything you need a (No.) 1 corner to do, he can. It’s going to be a whole lot of fun watching him progress."
Early in camp, Hobbs has been matched up against standout sophomore receiver Ricky Smalling.
As Hobbs says, it's iron sharpening iron.
It's a matchup that Smith and cornerbacks coach Donnie Abraham say should happen — the top corner against the top receiver.
“I like going against him because I like going against the best and I like competing," Hobbs said. "Whenever I get a chance to compete, I love it.
“When another receiver who is just as good as him steps in the game, I’m going to be ready."
It's a different world for Hobbs this year at training camp. One year ago, he missed the entire camp after being diagnosed with mononucleosis. Hobbs dropped 20 pounds and missed valuable reps for a freshman.
The week before last year's season opener against Ball State, Hobbs started making plays on the practice squad and eventually moved on to the third team, then the second team.
A few days before the game, he was told to be ready to play and make his college debut.
By the time he played, Hobbs, who is 6-feet tall, said he was up to 170 pounds and has since bulked up to 183.
Now, Hobbs is in his first training camp with 12 games of college football under his belt.
“We’re only five days into it, but he has a better understanding of the defense, knowing where he’s supposed to be and when he’s supposed to be there," Abraham said. "He’s starting to pick that up. When you know the ins and outs of a defense then you can create turnovers and make plays. That’s what we’re looking for with him this year is to take that next step and make plays — a lot more interceptions and big plays for us."
Those game reps were priceless. He got rid of the first-game jitters in Week 1 against Ball State. Then his next "welcome to Division I football" moment came in Week 11 against Ohio State, when the Illini played in Columbus.
"Last year I got a whole year of experience in the game, and they always say the game is a lot faster and it is faster," Hobbs said. "It takes some getting used to. Now, when you already experienced that, you can come back and play the game a little slower."
NOTES: Quarterbacks AJ Bush and Cam Thomas continue to split reps with the first team in the quarterback battle. ... Wednesday was the first day the Illini practiced in full pads ... The receivers continue to make plays. Trenard Davis and Carlos Sandy each came away with nice catches. ... A small skirmish broke out when Smalling and cornerback Nolan Bernat were battling for a ball in the second half of practice. "That wasn’t much of a skirmish," Smith said. "All that was was a way to force the rest of your teammates to run and get tired in the middle of practice. We don’t have time for that stuff. We need to use all that energy out there between the whistles as much as anything." ... Former Illini linebacker James Crawford signed with the Green Bay Packers on Wednesday.
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