CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — His Illinois team is a double-digit underdog, but Saturday will bring the kind of game Hardy Nickerson has been waiting for since he decided to transfer from Cal.
Michigan. The Big House and 100,000-plus fans. A Wolverines fullback lined up across from him.
“This is the football that I always thought the Big Ten was about,” the Illini linebacker said as his team prepared to face the No. 3 Wolverines (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten). “Pro-style offenses for a linebacker are the most fun games. You’re getting downhill, you’re making plays and it really comes down to how the linebackers are playing in those games if the defense does well.”
A lot is riding on Nickerson this week and every week at Illinois (2-4, 1-2).
He made the move from Cal as a graduate student, following his dad, former NFL linebacker Hardy Nickerson, when the older Nickerson took the job as Lovie Smith’s defensive coordinator at Illinois.
At Cal, Nickerson led an eight-win Bears team with 112 tackles, 8.6 a game. That defense, though, gave up just over 30 points a game, living in the shadow of a Cal offense that scored close almost 38.
Smith, on the other hand, is a defense-first coach. He needed a player like Nickerson, a linebacker to plug into a slot that had no ready-made starter.
Nickerson has done what Illinois has asked and then some. He is leading the Big Ten in tackles with 58, good for 9.7 per game. That puts him at 21st in the country.
Nickerson and his father bear a strong resemblance on and off the field.
At Cal, the younger Nickerson wore his father’s old number, 47. Both flash easy smiles and both say that, after the past two years of the son playing football on the West Coast while the father coached in Florida as part of Smith’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers staff, they are happy they met in the middle.
“As a dad to just have him around, that’s been just an unbelievable experience,” the older Nickerson said.
As good as it has been to be close, there’s a difference now: Coach Nickerson was used to watching linebacker Nickerson in the way a dad does when they were a country apart. For those two years, “we talked every night, especially after games,” the older Nickerson said.
Now, much like when he coached his son at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, California, the coach says now he’s just too busy thinking about the next play call and analyzing what’s happening to his defense as the game progresses.
That is one place, the younger Nickerson says, that the two are close in a different way.
“On the field we’re able to diagnose things fast, and I’m able to tell him if I have a problem with something or if he has a coaching point,” Nickerson said.
The linebacker is accustomed to that role of on-field analyst, as well as catalyst.
Stanford, he says, was the one downhill, Michigan-type team the Bears faced every season, but the other teams they saw tended to be more up-tempo, like Oregon.
Highlights from last season’s Oregon game include Nickerson making big plays, but with each play the scoreboard in the corner of the screen showed the Ducks pulling further away. No matter, after each hit Nickerson popped up, clapping hands hard at teammates, trying to keep them in a game they would eventually lose, 44-38.
After the game, Nickerson uncharacteristically let just a bit of an edge come through as he talked to reporters : “I think guys are pissed off right now. It hurt.”
This week, Nickerson laughed when asked if he knew where he ranked in the Big Ten in tackles, saying he’d just seen the stat on Twitter. He said he would give up that top spot if it meant something better in the one area that hasn’t worked as well as he would like Illinois — wins and losses.
“If that means me making 19 tackles or that means me making three tackles, I’ll take it.”
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