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10 Moments that Defined Illinois Football: Defensive Coordinator Hardy Nickerson steps down

An interesting and promising hire who failed to deliver.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

A Promising Hire

In March of 2016 — shortly after Illinois AD Josh Whitman shockingly hired Lovie Smith — the college football world was intrigued. How would Lovie’s NFL system, predicated on the famous “Tampa 2” defense, translate to a program in need of a rebuild? To implement his system, Lovie brought in Hardy Nickerson — a former NFL Linebacker with vast experience in the “Tampa 2” — to be his Defensive Coordinator. Nickerson’s hire clearly signaled the direction Lovie wanted to take this program.

In terms of his coaching acumen, Nickerson had coached in the NFL with Lovie, but had no experience in college. Still, his inexperience in the college ranks was thought to be neutralized by his connections to California’s Bay Area — a potential recruiting boon for the Illini. Unfortunately, in the end, Nickerson was unable to effectively implement an effective defensive scheme and did little for the Illini on the recruiting trail.

Nickerson’s inability to coach up underclassman sealed his fate

The Illini Defense was ranked 59th in Defensive S&P in Nickerson’s first year at Illinois. But then in 2017, Nickerson was really put to the test as the Illini decided to go young and build for the future by starting mostly freshman and sophomores.

The results were as expected. The Illini showed promise at certain points as they limited big plays, but for the most part, they were inefficient and failed to stop any team with any mix of talent and experience. The end result was a defense that dropped to 89th in Defensive S&P.

The youth movement was expected to yield improvement for the 2018 Illini Defense. Unfortunately, the Defense regressed significantly dropping to 126 in Defensive S&P, which sealed Nickerson’s fate as Illini defensive coordinator.

The first half against Kent State signaled doom.

NCAA Football: Kent State at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

The Illini’s first-half struggles against Kent State and their former blue chip QB, Woody Barrett, were a sign of things to come. Barrett ran through and around the Illini as Kent State led 17-3 at the half. From there, the Illini got torched on a weekly basis. The Illini’s one saving grace on defense in 2017 — their ability to limit big plays — was no longer existent and their other deficiencies grew larger by the week. Midseason blowout losses to Purdue and Wisconsin put Illini fans on edge. No one expected the Illini to have much success against a middling but talented Maryland offense, but what transpired in that game sealed Nickerson’s fate.

Maryland embarrasses the Illini defense.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Against Maryland, the Illini gave up 63 points and over 700 yards of offense — 431 of them on the ground. This was a new low for an Illini defense that continually bottomed out. At that point in the season, it was evident that Illini defense had no floor. Nickerson subsequently resigned two days later.

What does the future hold for the Illini’s defense?

Following Nickerson’s resignation, the promise of a once impenetrable NFL scheme — the ”Tampa 2”— turning Illini Football into a force to be reckoned with was now lost, and the questions continue to linger. Did the Illini not have the athletes to run the scheme? Was Nickerson ill-equipped to teach the scheme in College Football’s limited 20 hour practice week? Is the scheme itself ill-equipped to stop modern spread offense? Will Lovie continue to implement the “Tampa 2”?

We will know more this offseason when Lovie names Nickerson replacement. For now, we have to hope that the Illini’s problems on defense were more a Hardy Nickerson issue and less a talent or Lovie Smith issue.

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