CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — In his first season at Illinois, defensive back Nate Hobbs missed the majority of training camp while recovering from mono. His lack of practice time hasn't translated into a lack of production.
Hobbs had a team-high six tackles in his first career start over the weekend as the Illini beat Western Kentucky 20-7. He also broke up a pass.
"They just threw me in the fire," Hobbs said. "I knew I had to leave my mark."
Hobbs was one of seven true freshman to start against WKU, the most in school history.
Despite the inexperience, coach Lovie Smith's team showed a lot more synergy on defense than it did in Week One. In the season-opening victory over Ball State, the Cardinals converted 12 of 21 third downs. But against the Hilltoppers - who led the country in scoring last season at 45.5 points per game - the Illini allowed only two third down conversions on 12 attempts.
Smith said he saw a lot of growth in his players in just seven days, and that they were motivated by unfavorable predictions of the game's outcome.
"To be underdogs at home, you have to stand up to that and our guys did," Smith said. "(They) really took it to heart."
To Hobbs, the game wasn't just about being overlooked. It was also about facing a program he once envisioned himself playing for.
A native of Louisville, Kentucky, Hobbs led his high school to a 10-3 record in his final season and did so in a variety of ways. On offense, he recorded five touchdown receptions, while on defense he scored twice - once on a fumble recovery and once on an interception. He also scored on two punt returns and returned one kickoff for a TD.
His versatility garnered him scholarship offers and he settled on playing for the Hilltoppers. Just over month after his commitment, coach Jeff Brohm left to take over at Purdue. Hobbs reopened his recruitment and accepted a late offer from Illinois, noting the coaching staff's NFL experience as a big factor in his decision.
Defensive back Cameron Watkins believes his teammate has only scratched the surface of his potential, and he will have the chance to truly blossom under their coaches' veteran leadership.
"He has such an incredibly high ceiling," Watkins said. "I look forward to seeing the player he's going to be in the next couple of years."
Smith, Watkins and defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson have all heaped praise on Hobbs for his poise so far this season, but he knows it has only been two games. Sure, he has dreams of playing in the NFL one day and is confident he can get there, but he is trying not to get distracted.
For now, No. 22 South Florida is up next on Friday night and Illinois has a chance to close out its nonconference schedule undefeated. Taking down the Bulls' high-powered offense on the road will be another daunting task for the young Illini, but Hobbs is committed to his squad's defensive principles, which including getting three takeaways and stopping 70 percent of third downs by their opponent.
These are the same goals Smith has reinforced since his first day on campus, and Hobbs has a simple strategy to help the Illini reach those expectations.
"I just want to go out there and really break up anything that comes my way," Hobbs said.