Copyright 2018 The Pantagraph
The Pantagraph (Bloomington, Illinois)
CHAMPAIGN — University of Illinois football coach Lovie Smith was surprised Sunday when Hardy Nickerson told him that he was resigning as the team's defensive coordinator.
Smith equated the resignation to injuries — you don't plan on them, but they can happen.
Smith and Nickerson have a deep coaching history together and have known each other since 1996. Nickerson had been the defensive coordinator after being hired in March 2016.
"Our relationship is a lot more than just coaches working together on a daily basis," Smith said on Monday. "We've been through an awful lot. It's a personal relationship that you have. Whenever someone leaves the program, it's tough. Hardy came in yesterday morning and of course resigned his position of defensive coordinator from our football team for personal reasons.
"It's a tough day — tough time for our program. We're not satisfied with a lot of things that we're doing football-wise right now. Defensively, we haven't played good defense, but you kind of work through things. Medical issues come up. They can make you do some things that you ordinarily wouldn't do."
The Illinois defense is allowing an average of 510.4 yards, ranking 125th out of 129 in the Football Bowl Series. Illinois ranks 119th in rushing defense, allowing 222 yards per game, and ranks 124th in passing yards allowed with 288.4.
Illinois allowed 712 yards in Saturday's 63-33 loss to Maryland. The Illini have allowed at least 400 total yards to their opponents in six of the eight games this season, and have allowed at least 500 yards four times.
"I've been involved defensively, but I don't call special teams plays, offensive plays or defensive plays, but I have been more involved, of course, defensively this year," Smith said. "I've been involved every year defensively. I haven't been in that role, but I feel comfortable being in that role."
Nickerson left his position as linebackers coach for the San Francisco 49ers to join Smith in Champaign. Smith and Nickerson worked together in Chicago in 2007, when Nickerson was linebackers coach and Smith was head coach, and again from 2014-15 in Tampa Bay, where Smith was head coach and Nickerson linebackers coach.
"When I was contacted about being offered this job back in 2016, I was excited for the opportunity to come in to coordinate and run Illinois' defense," Nickerson said in a news release. "I had every intention of helping put our defensive student-athletes in the best possible position to win, and, ultimately, to make the University of Illinois community and fans proud of our results. Due to health-related circumstances beyond my control I must step aside at this time.
"I would like to thank Lovie Smith and Josh Whitman for giving me the opportunity to coach at the University of Illinois. I'd also like to thank my colleagues and staff, as well as the entire Illinois football program, for the privilege of working with them. Most importantly, I want to thank our student-athletes for all of their hard work and great effort. Working with you every day has been fun. I wish you all nothing but the best in all that you do going forward."
Smith called defensive plays last season for one game when Nickerson was away from the team after the death of his mother.
Calling plays and completing his other duties as a head coach won't be an issue, Smith said.
"During the course of the game, I know most head coaches like to think there are 30 million things that we're doing, but we can make some calls when the defense is out there and pay attention to the rest of the game when that's going on, also," Smith said.
Nickerson also was linebackers coach for the Illini, a role that defensive analyst Rob Wright will take over.
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