Four football players vying for safety spots

By Daniel Johnson

One of the first issues Illinois will have to address this spring will be its secondary.

Although the Illini will be returning their primary cornerbacks from last year, their three primary safeties, Justin Harrison, Justin Sanders and Kevin Mitchell, have graduated.

Mitchell led the conference in passes defended in all games, was second in the conference in fumbles recovered, and tied for third in the Big Ten for picks. Harrison led the defensive backfield in tackles with 80; Sanders had 57 tackles on the season, one interception and eight passes defended.

The question now is how will Ron Zook and co-defensive coordinator Curt Mallory replace the trio that received the majority of playing time last year.

“We just want to come in and fill the void, you can’t replace those guys, as far as what they did,” sophomore Bo Flowers said. “What we can do is make the secondary unit solid, make ourselves better and play the best we can.”

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As of now, the four players vying for the vacated safety spots are Flowers, Nate Bussey, Travon Bellamy and Garrett Edwards, all sophomores.

“I think Travon Bellamy is going to give us a guy that understands the defense well; he’s ready, and he’s very, very hungry,” Zook said. “Nate Bussey is a guy that we played as a freshman and is showing signs of being able to do great things. Bo Flowers continues to improve; Garrett Edwards was really coming on strong last year until he hurt his knee.”

Given the competition that has been present throughout spring practice, it would be hard to determine a starting duo now, and neither Zook nor Mallory were ready to decide on anything soon.

“They’re all getting about even work, and I think that we still have a long way to go.” Mallory said. “Obviously, we have to replace a lot of experience at the position. You can’t buy experience, and that’s what we’re losing. Every practice, every day, every minute, (the safeties) have to be thinking about working on football. We have four guys in the mix right now, and we’re going to be bringing two more in, in the fall.”

The two being brought in are Georgia Military College transfer Donsay Hardeman and Supo Sanni, a Homewood, Ill., native. Hardeman is expected to bring another level of ability to the already competitive position, with his size, speed and physicality.

The Florida native also had offers from Florida, Miami and Georgia, among others. Sanni is a two-sport athlete who chose Illinois over West Virginia and Iowa, among others.

“Donsay is an older gentleman, a junior college player, so hopefully he can come in and compete right away,” Mallory said. “Supo Sanni is a player out of the Chicago area with great athleticism. So, athletically, we feel he has a great opportunity. We’re going to look to see if those guys can come in and help us.”

Given the amount of young, talented safeties that will be available, the coaching staff is trying to weight their options as much as they can with each player and where he will fit into the defensive scheme.

But even with the wealth of talent, the coaching staff isn’t ready to peg the position as one that will feature a rotation of players, again. Mallory said Tuesday he would be playing the “best players” and not necessarily a combination.

For the time being, the “best players,” or at least the two getting the most first-team defense repetitions, are Bussey and Flowers.

“It would be a great accomplishment if I could come in here and fill the shoes of one of the great players that left before me,” Bussey said.

Whoever does end up replacing the trio of graduated seniors, it is certain that they will be getting plenty of advice. “I talk to Justin Harrison all the time; he gives me words of wisdom,” Bussey said. “He helps me with what to look out for and with different techniques, stuff like that.”