CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Now we’ll really see Lovie Smith’s defense.
Smith plans to call plays for Illinois’ defense for the rest of the 2018 season following third-year defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson’s resignation from the program. Smith said Nickerson, who he has known since 1996, approached him Sunday morning about resigning due to personal reasons — labeled as “health-related circumstances” in a University press release — and the resignation became official Monday.
“It’s a tough day,” Smith said during his press conference Monday. “Tough time for our program.”
“I wish Hardy nothing but the best as he moves forward with his career,” Smith added in the press release.
Nickerson, who joined the Illini staff in March 2016 when Smith was hired as the 27th head coach in school history, was running one of the country’s most porous defenses through eight games this season. The Illini rank 127th out of 130 teams in total defense, 122nd in rushing defense and 119th in scoring defense.
Illinois most recently allowed 63 points and more than 700 yards in a 30-point loss to Maryland, who was one week removed from being shutout on the road against Iowa.
“When I was contacted about being offered this job back in 2016, I was excited for the opportunity to come in to coordinate and run Illinois’ defense,” Nickerson said in the release. “I had every intention of helping put our defensive student-athletes in the best possible position to win, and, ultimately, to make the University of Illinois community and fans proud of our results.
“I would like to thank Lovie Smith and [Director of Athletics] Josh Whitman for giving me the opportunity to coach at the University of Illinois. I’d also like to thank my colleagues and staff, as well as the entire Illinois Football Program, for the privilege of working with them. Most importantly, I want to thank our student-athletes for all of their hard work and great effort. Working with you every day has been fun. I wish you all nothing but the best in all that you do going forward.”
Nickerson is the second defensive coach to leave the Illini this season. Defensive backs Donnie Abraham resigned due to personal reasons on Aug. 14, just weeks before the start fo the season. As a result, Smith has been tasked with taking extra roles on defense, which will now include play-calling.
“There always has to be another plan when things go wrong or go a different direction,” Smith said. “We have a plan in place on what we’re going to do.
Smith called plays for Illinois’ defense for one game in 2017 when Nickerson missed a game due to a death in his family.
“I’ve been involved defensively but I haven’t called plays. I have been more involved defensively. I feel comfortable being in that role.”
Defensive analyst Rob Wright will take Nickerson’s role in coaching Illinois’ linebackers during the remainder of the season.
“Coach Smith always preaches, ‘Next guy up.’ Whether that’s a coach, player, trainer, the season doesn’t stop,” said captain and offensive lineman Nick Allegretti. “The other Big Ten teams don’t stop preparing for us. We need to do that quickly.”
During his tenure in Champaign, Nickerson brought his son, Hardy Nickerson Jr., aboard as a graduate transfer in 2016. The younger Nickerson now plays for the Cincinnati Bengals.
Nickerson, 53, played 16 seasons in the NFL for four different teams. Smith served as Nickerson’s linebackers coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in from 1996-99, and Nickerson was the Chicago Bears’ linebackers coach in 2007 under Smith. A five-time Pro Bowler, Nickerson was expected to be part of the revival of Illinois Football in a staff full of NFL pedigree.
Instead, his longest-lasting impact on the program may be from the type of person he is.
“It’s difficult,” said first-year offensive coordinator Rod Smith. “I’ve only known Hardy for a short time, but to me he’s a man of tremendous character, tremendous integrity. I hated it. I just found out yesterday. It’s tough, it really is. You hope he’s OK physically, and I wish him nothing but the best. It’s a downer, but at the same time, I told our team, it’s time to galvanize and move the season forward.”
When Illinois takes the field for its first home game in three weeks Saturday against Minnesota, it will be without Hardy Nickerson.
Whether that changes anything for the Illini — on the verge of missing a bowl game for the fourth consecutive year — waits to be seen.
“Life gives you adversity, and you just need to rally together and keep going,” said running back Reggie Corbin.
“None of our lives are perfect, and we’ve been through adversity before, and I don’t think this is any different.”
Stephen Cohn is the Site Manager for The Champaign Room.