Nixon-Youman’s academic improvements carrying over to gridiron

With seven minutes remaining in the first half of last Saturday’s game against Indiana, sophomore defensive back Patrick Nixon-Youman trotted back to the Illinois sidelines, and a smiling defensive coordinator Vic Koenning gave him a congratulatory pat on the back.

Nixon-Youman had just stepped in front of a pass from Indiana quarterback Ben Chappell, returning an interception for a 68-yard touchdown.

But just a few days ago, Koenning didn’t mince his words in a very different conversation between the two.

“I really got after him this week,” Koenning said after last Saturday’s game. “It was about academic stuff. It’s hard for you to play when you’re worrying about stuff in the classroom. So we made a special emphasis on Tuesday and Wednesday about academics.”

Koenning spent Tuesday and Wednesday meeting with Nixon-Youman’s academic advisers to make sure he was meeting his academic responsibilities, and Nixon-Youman said Koenning’s insistence that week was part of an ongoing lecture about school.

“He’s preached to me week in and week out to take care of my academics,” Nixon-Youman said. “The coaching staff takes it all together, to live your life off the field the way you want to have it on the field. Take care of your academics and it’ll come over to football.”

And for Nixon-Youman, most of his story at Illinois has been off the field, not on it.

Entering the first few weeks of the season, Nixon-Youman was a seldom-used backup cornerback. Due to academic issues that prevented him from playing his first year on campus, followed by a serious hip injury his freshman season, he only registered one tackle in 2009 — which came in the regular season finale against Fresno State on a special teams play.

“Pat’s had an interesting month,” Koenning said. “About a month or so ago, he was ready to probably hang it up. He was pretty disappointed, wasn’t getting much playing time, and he wasn’t really ready to play.”

But then redshirt freshman Steve Hull, who had been playing in the nickel package, suffered an ankle injury against Ohio State on Oct. 2 and has been sidelined since, leaving an opening at the nickelback position.

“With Steve getting hurt, we really needed somebody to play in that package, and Pat stepped up,” Koenning said.

Nixon-Youman now finds himself playing regularly for the first time since 2007 when he starred as a high school defensive back in Jacksonville, Fla.

A top prospect that chose Illinois over offers from Florida and LSU, Nixon-Youman came to campus in 2008 expecting to compete for playing time as a freshman. But due to undisclosed academic issues, he had to sit out a semester.

“It was tough,” Nixon-Youman said. “I was in a new environment all on my own, no mom, no brothers, no nothing, just all on my own, and then no football on top of that. It made me grow up.”

Nixon-Youman was able to clear NCAA requirements and enroll at the University in January of 2009, but a few weeks into spring practices in April, his college career hit another speed bump.

On a routine tackle, Nixon-Youman felt a searing pain in his hip as he found himself at the bottom of a pile of players.

He suffered a tear in his pelvic muscle so severe that the muscle came off his hip bone.

He underwent extensive reconstructive surgery, and he said the recovery process wasn’t complete until halfway through this spring’s practices.

“Throughout the injury, it was pretty discouraging,” Nixon-Youman said. “I’ve never suffered a big injury like that before. I didn’t know how it was going to heal, if I was ever really going to be fully back.”

Now fully recovered from the injury, Nixon-Youman has been receiving increasing playing time at the nickelback position in place of Hull.

On top of his interception for a touchdown last Saturday, Nixon-Youman also recorded five tackles.

“He didn’t play as well (two weeks ago) at Michigan State as we needed him to. He did OK,” Koenning said. “But I think he somehow gained some confidence, and made some really nice plays in the game (against Indiana). Pat’s confidence is growing, and hopefully he’ll get better.”

Taking care of academics off the field, Koenning said, has led to Nixon-Youman’s improved play on it.

“I think he got that out of his brain so he wasn’t worried about that, and I think that helped him with playing football,” Koenning said.

“You can’t just be a football player, you have to be a well-rounded guy.”

And with his injury and academic troubles behind him, Nixon-Youman can refocus his attention to the football field. And a week after the play, he still smiles when he talks about the interception.

“When I wasn’t out there, I felt like I lost a part of me,” he said. “I love the game of football. That play brought a lot of feelings and emotions back about how much I love this game.”