Playing for his town now

Playing for his town now

URBANA — Kevin Hinders had one word to describe the moment he was handed an Illinois football jersey with "Hinders" on the back. His Illinois football jersey. Crazy.

It wasn't something the St. Thomas More grad ever thought would happen. He wrapped up his high school football career with one of the best seasons in Sabers history — an 8-4 record and a Class 2A quarterfinals berth.

An email from Patrick Embleton, Illinois' director of football student-athlete development, in the spring offered him an opportunity to join the Illini. Hinders, a lifelong Illinois fan, quickly agreed and joined the Illini's growing freshman class in April.

"Really, for me, Champaign and Fighting Illini athletics have always been in my heart," Hinders said. "I've grown up here. It's a big opportunity, and I could not pass it up. It was a really big deal for me."

Hinders joining Illinois as a walk-on defensive end and kept a Champaign native on the roster after Michael Martin graduated. The former Illini long snapper, a family friend, was someone Hinders turned to when he received his own walk-on opportunity.

"He's kind of my mentor, and we've been talking," Hinders said. "We text sometimes. Basically he just warned me about the transition from St. Thomas More to University of Illinois football. He told me to just keep on persevering and always do my best no matter what. It's going to pay off is what he said."

With the third week of training camp underway, Illinois is 18 days away from its Sept. 2 season opener against Ball State. The Memorial Stadium stands are a familiar place for Hinders. He'll have a spot quite a bit closer to the action when the Illini square off against the Cardinals.

"I had season tickets here growing up, and now I'm going to be on the field with the rest of the team," he said. "It's crazy to think that. It's kind of surreal, to be honest. I'm not playing for just myself. I'm playing for my team and for my town."


Reggie Corbin has shed his green jersey, but the redshirt sophomore running back still hasn't made a full return in training camp. Corbin typically fields punts during special teams work and runs through some position specific drills, but he has yet to participate in full 11-on-11 workouts.

"He's getting close, but not quite ready for full contact," Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. "We don't know exactly how long it will be, but getting closer to that."


With Corbin's return and Kendrick Foster injured, it gives freshmen running backs Mike Epstein and Ra'Von Bonner the majority of the reps during practice.

"All the guys could be full speed, healthy and all that, and we'd still watch some of Kendrick's reps," Smith said. "We wanted to let our young players get as many reps as possible. It's kind of worked out that way, and we've liked what we've see."


Illinois opened camp with the cornerback spot opposite Jaylen Dunlap an open competition. It remains that into the third week of preseason practices, with all the cornerbacks getting looks with Dunlap yet to participate because of a leg injury.

"When you're one corner is out it's tough, but Tony Adams is getting good reps," Smith said. "Ahmari Hayes has gotten a lot. We need to get Nate Hobbs out there. We feel like we know what Jaylen Dunlap is, but when you haven't practiced we need to get him out there, too."


Hayes is typically one of the final Illini on the field each day of camp. The 6-foot-3, 190-pound senior cornerback knows there's something he can always improve about his game.

"If I notice I need to get better at something, why not stay after practice and work on it?" Hayes said. "It's not like I have anything better else to do. We're in camp, and all right now we should be thinking is football."


Hayes had one of a few takeaways for the Illinois defense on Monday with an interception. Sophomore linebacker Dele Harding ended the practice with a interception of his own.

It wasn't quite enough, though, in Hayes' opinion.

"We didn't get to our goal," he said. "(Defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson) has a goal for us every day to accomplish three-plus turnovers. We didn't make that. I feel like if we as a defense don't make our accomplishments, I didn't do something. There was an opportunity I missed where I could have made a play for us to reach our requirement."


Illinois had its first string offensive line together Monday for the first time since the first days of training camp with Larry Boyd's full return after spending the past two practices slowly working his way back on the field.

"It was really a cool thing to watch because all the dudes were back and we were really working together really well," Gabe Megginson said. "The defense is putting a lot of pressure on us, and we picked it up pretty well."Scott Richey