NFL experience key in building Illini secondary


CHAMPAIGN (WCIA) — The Illinois football coaching staff had the most NFL experience of any coaching staff in college football last season. They added even more this offseason with the addition of Gill Byrd.

The Illinois defensive backfield is filled with coaches who haven’t just walked in players shoes, they practically made them.

“I believe we’ve got a little bit more patience with these guys because we’ve gone through it,” Byrd said.

With the addition of the new safeties coach Gill Byrd, the Illini’s secondary coaches share a combined 19 years of NFL playing experience. Add in defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Hardy Nickerson and it totals 35.

“If you learn from someone, you want to learn from the best,” Kendall Smith said. “If someone’s been in the NFL that long, of course they know what they’re doing.”

“I just take their advice and their teachings and I feel like if I apply it on the field the right way, then things are going to work out because they really know what they’re talking about,” Nate Hobbs added.

Together, Byrd and cornerbacks coach Donnie Abraham create a balanced approach. It’s helped sophomore Kendall Smith in his transition from wide receiver to safety.

“Abraham is definitely a real laid back guy like, he cool guy,” Smith explained. “And then Coach Byrd can bring the energy when he needs to, so yeah, it’s a perfect match.”

“Coach Byrd, being an addition to our team, he’s going to be a big help,” Hobbs added. “He’s real positive. He tries to encourage us a lot. He just pushes us to be our best every day.”

Along with his 10 years as a player, Byrd also spent 13 seasons as a coach in the NFL. It’s a transition he says not everyone can do. 

“When you’ve played at a high level, to coach at a high level, is not easy because there’s a certain amount of frustration that may be there,” Byrd described. “So, I think not a lot of guys will coach who’ve played.”

Fortunately for Illinois, Byrd will. As the Illini hope to improve upon a secondary that had just nine interceptions last season and allowed nearly 200 passing yards per game.

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