Henry gaining experience, creating turnovers for Illini secondary

Illinois entered last Saturday’s game against Ohio State as the only Big Ten team without an interception. By game’s end, the Illini secondary nabbed two, both coming from junior safety Trulon Henry.

The two interceptions were also the first career picks for the junior college transfer.

“Experience at the position is starting to pay off,” Henry said. “I’m getting better each day and each practice, and it’s all coming to me a little better now.”

Creating turnovers has been a point of emphasis for this year’s defensive secondary after the Illini finished with a league-worst five interceptions in 2009.

“(Henry) had about four or five interceptions in practice yesterday,” Illinois head coach Ron Zook said Tuesday. “Once those things start happening, hopefully it kind of picks up and keeps going.”

Henry said his two-interception performance was a result of his pregame preparation, which he said he is continuing to improve.

“Watching Terrelle Pryor on film, I knew his eyes usually tell where he’s going,” Henry said. “That’s not the case with all the quarterbacks, but some quarterbacks will tell the truth with their eyes.”

Zook said sophomore cornerback Terry Hawthorne is still day-to-day with the stress fracture in his right foot that has sidelined him since the offseason.

“The key, obviously, is that we don’t put him in a situation before he is ready,” Zook said.

The secondary, which has been without Hawthorne and starting junior safety Supo Sanni (ruptured Achilles tendon), took another hit last weekend when redshirt freshman safety Steve Hull suffered an ankle injury. Zook said Hull is questionable for Saturday’s game against Penn State.

In Hull’s absence, Zook said sophomore cornerback Patrick Nixon-Youman has been receiving reps in dime and nickel coverage.

“He’s a guy we need to get on the field,” Zook said. “I think he deserves to be on the field.”

Zook also said sophomore Ashante Williams, who has mostly been practicing as a linebacker, will receive playing time at the position.

“He came here as a safety, and he played safety for the last couple years,” Zook said. “We worked him at (nickelback) last night, and he picked it up well. I told (defensive coordinator Vic Koenning) I was kind of impressed.”

Throughout their first four games, the Illini have been penalized 28 times for 258 yards, third-worst in the Big Ten.

“We stress it all the time,” Zook said about preventing penalties. “They don’t go out there with that in mind. We’ve got to go out there and play the game hard.”

In last Saturday’s 24-13 loss to Ohio State, the Illini were penalized nine times for 74 yards.

“If you look at the first two penalties, or I believe it was maybe even three penalties, they were made by true freshmen,” Zook said. “If you’re a true freshman playing a game like that, they know the excitement of it. It is a learning thing, but they have to learn. As I told them, I’m not willing to treat them as freshmen. Those are the penalties that we will get corrected.”

Illinois on Saturday will face a Penn State squad that has been penalized a nation-best 15 times for 90 yards through their first five games.

“You go back and you look at the total number of penalties, and the ones that I get upset about are the penalties that are foolish,” Zook said. “It’s not because of a lack of effort.”