CHAMPAIGN — The mere fact that Nate Hobbs sat at a table inside the bowels of the Hilton Hotel in Chicago last week at Big Ten Media Days spoke volumes to his progression.
Less than an hour before last year's season-opening win against Kent State, the University of Illinois provided a news release announcing that Hobbs, a cornerback for the Illini, was suspended indefinitely, along with four other Illini for a violation of team rules. Hobbs, along with Bennett Williams, Lou Dorsey, Carmoni Green and Deon Pate, were each suspended for the first three games of the season. Pate and Hobbs are the only two players still on Illinois' roster after the other three transferred out of the program.
Some 10 months later, about a month-and-a-half before Illinois opens the season at home against Akron on Aug. 31, Hobbs was one of three Illini players to represent the university in Chicago, joining running back Reggie Corbin and offensive lineman Alex Palczewski.
Hobbs has undergone a full-scale maturation and worked himself back into the good graces of the coaching staff. His play on the field certainly doesn't hurt matters, especially after securing his first career interception in Week 5 against Rutgers last season. Illinois head coach Lovie Smith has been high on Hobbs' talent, particularly after a standout performance in spring practices.
During the suspension, though, Hobbs couldn't display any of his on-the-field skills. He had to find himself, leaning a little bit on his mother, Denisa Hobbs, but mostly he sat in a pool of self-reflection.
“I matured as a person," Hobbs said. "I think I’m kind of glad that happened to me. Not glad, but I’m appreciative. It’s one of the things in my life that’s made a man out of me. I’ve had to sit back and reflect on what I’m doing.
“After I took some time to sit back and reflect, I figured out my actions. They don’t only affect me, they affect my teammates and my family. I’m real intentional about what I do now and why I do things."
At this point in his college career, as a junior with 21 games of college football under his belt and full of motivation to avenge some eye-popping defensive lapses as a unit last season, Hobbs doesn't do much by accident. Everyone on the roster knows where they want to be — the NFL is the destination. But football performance isn't everything.
How players act off the field plays a role in making it to the next level. Hobbs knows that. His actions are planned — methodical even — to stay on the field and be a defensive anchor for a unit that desperately needs and senses a turnaround.
"I didn’t really talk a lot to anybody about it," Hobbs said. "My mom was there for me a lot, of course. I really wasn’t asking for help. I really leaned on myself and found it in myself to do that. I feel like, at some point, everybody is going to hit rock bottom or things like that, and you’ve got to look in the mirror and be like, ‘What am I going to do?’"
This version of Hobbs, the one who is reflective and accepting of his past indiscretions that helped shape him into a more mature player, didn't always exist. Naturally, he wasn't particularly enthralled when he received word of his suspension.
“At the time I was like, ‘This is some BS. Why are they doing me like that?’ I did it to myself, but I understand that now," Hobbs said. "I’m a bigger and better person."
Time and time again during the suspension, Smith made it a point to not call the mistakes a "death sentence." Hobbs took advantage of his chances and came back strong with 22 tackles, three tackles for loss and two passes defended in nine games. In Illinois' spring football game in March, Hobbs had a pick-6 and stood on the turf at Memorial Stadium shortly after the game and preached a different mindset out of the Illini defense. He maintained at Media Days that the goal is to dominate, and the goal of the secondary is to be the best in the country.
Quite the turnaround for Hobbs after a low point to open last year.
“I think it helps you an awful lot when you fall through adversity and you come out a better man, and you know that," Smith said. "That’s where he is and I think he will tell you. Most of us have to do that. Most of us make mistakes when we’re young and hopefully we learn from them and don’t make the same mistakes over again."