Despite big game, Hull just wants victories

Editor’s note: The Daily Illini sports desk sits down Sunday nights and decides which Illinois athlete or coach is our Illini of the Week. Athletes and coaches are evaluated by individual performance and contribution to team success. 

Steve Hull’s phone was exploding, but he didn’t want to answer any of the calls or text messages. 

“It was bittersweet,” Hull said. Then he pauses. He changes his answer.

“It kind of sucked, really.”

His brother and his sister called him, among the numerous other texts and calls he received. His parents called him from Columbus, Ohio. He didn’t respond to any of them. 

“There’s nothing to talk about,” Hull said. “There’s nothing to cheer about.”

When he finally did talk to his sister over the phone, all she could talk about was his 224 receiving yards and two touchdowns against Indiana on Saturday. Hull didn’t care about that. His team fell short for the fifth straight game, and that’s all that really mattered.

“It didn’t mean anything,” Hull said. “It didn’t matter to me. If we had won, then yeah, it would have been a totally different story.”

Hull’s two touchdown catches came on passes of 60 and 54 yards. He made another seven catches tossed by his friend and former roommate Nathan Scheelhaase, but the Illini couldn’t keep up with Indiana, dropping the contest 52-35.

It was his best game as a receiver after moving back to the position in the offseason. Hull, a fifth-year senior, came into Illinois as a receiver and was converted to safety after redshirting his first year.

A good season in 2011 was hampered by an injury late in the year, and then he missed almost all of 2012 with a shoulder injury. Injuries even kept him out for much of the spring and summer practice periods.

But now fully healthy, Hull looks more comfortable than ever at wide receiver.

First-year offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said he really didn’t know what Hull’s capabilities were at wide receiver.

“I told him: ‘I don’t know what you can do, so I can’t help you,’” Cubit said. “But he kept playing, playing and playing.”

For Scheelhaase, Hull’s success isn’t a surprise.

“I had seen him do these things before and I knew that this could always be something that he would be able to do,” Scheelhaase said. He and Hull roomed together freshmen year while both redshirting. They threw the ball around quite a bit.

“When he changed over I knew that he would have a heck of a season,” Scheelhaase said.

But the best part of being back at receiver might be Sunday mornings. Hull no longer wakes up with the achy feeling that hitting people all Saturday long used to give him.

“Being hit rather than hitting people is a big difference,” Hull said. “In the Big Ten conference, the running backs are big and the receivers are big. I honestly think I was undersized at safety when I played. I was pretty light. I was little. I was down there hitting a lot of people.”

Even if he wasn’t making a tackle, he was hitting a blocker or hitting a fullback. His body took a constant beating. That’s not to say receiver’s a walk in the park, but the pounding has been considerably less this season.

Hull said his Sunday mornings last year and this year are night and day in comparison. And he’s been able to stay injury-free, for the most part.

For Cubit, one of the best things about having Hull on the offensive side is having his defensive experience in the film room. Sometimes Cubit will call Hull to the front of the room to explain to the offense what a safety is doing and why.

“He has some pretty good points,” Cubit said.

Scheelhaase agrees.

“He understands what defenses are trying to do,” Scheelhaase said, “and how they’re trying to do it.

“As a quarterback you’re confident anytime that he’s the one you’re throwing the ball to, just because you know he’ll be in the right spot at the right time and make the play.”

For Hull, Scheelhaase and all of the seniors, time is running short. When the clock finally hit zero across the scoreboard on Saturday, the Hoosiers had handed the Illini their 19th straight conference loss, dating back to 2011.

Hull walked off the field with Scheelhaase and fellow senior receiver Miles Osei. The trio appeared demoralized. 

For Hull, it was more frustration than anything. They’d played well offensively, but it wasn’t good enough.

In the locker room, Hull said the seniors didn’t need to say anything to each other.

“There really wasn’t any words to say,” he said. “We all looked at each other and understood the look that we gave each other.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @sean_hammond.