Asmussen | Hawthorne feels Illini are on the rise

Asmussen | Hawthorne feels Illini are on the rise

URBANA — He still looks like he can play. Maybe not at cornerback, but at safety. Or as a really fast linebacker.

Back in the day — not very long ago — Terry Hawthorne was a cover corner at Illinois. Good enough to be drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Good enough to beat UCLA in the 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl with a backbreaking pick six.

In the last 30 years of Illinois bowls (12 games) Hawthorne's play stands out as the most dramatic. His team was losing. He went to work. His team won.

Pretty basic stuff.

The 2008 News-Gazette All-State Player of the Year was back in town Saturday morning, hanging out with his favorite college team.

"Everything's looking great," Hawthorne said of the Illini. "They're on the rise. It's a big improvement that I've seen since last year at camp."

During a two-hour practice at the Campus Rec Fields, almost everyone on the team and coaching staff came by to say hello to Hawthorne.

He was easy to pick out, wearing a bright orange Illinois jacket.

His name came up Friday, when transfer quarterback and fellow East St. Louis native AJ Bush talked about watching Hawthorne play in high school.

Bush, who is fighting for the starting spot, was introduced to Hawthorne by new offensive coordinator Rod Smith. A meeting of the Illinois past and immediate future.

Role model

Illinois needs more Hawthorne-level players on the team. Lots of them.

As a high school senior, while leading East St. Louis to a 13-0 record and the Class 7A state title, Hawthorne literally did everything.

Ranked among the nation's elite prep receivers, he had more than 1,000 receiving yards with 28 touchdowns. He was a star defensive back, returning four interceptions for touchdowns after intercepting eight passes his junior year.

He rarely left the field, other than at halftime. He handled returns for the Flyers and was also the punter, averaging 45 yards per boot.

And maybe just as important, he was a good guy.

After selecting him as the Player of the Year, we spent part of a day at East Side with Terry and his mom, Diane. Hawthorne had already made a commitment to Illinois and I remember telling photographer R.K. O'Daniell how nice it was going to be to deal with him the next four years.

I was right. While he didn't like to brag about himself, Hawthorne always gave us honest answers. Always polite and to the point.

Keeping busy

Hawthorne is back in East St. Louis, serving as the Dean of Students at his alma mater. He is also on Darren Sunkett's football staff, working with the secondary and receivers.

Hawthorne was a mentor to former N-G All-State Player of the Year Jeff Thomas, now a sophomore receiver at Miami.

"He's doing great," Hawthorne said. "I was out in Miami last weekend. He's on the right track. Very mature now. He needed to get away."

Hawthorne's time at Illinois is recognized by the Flyers. His Illinois banner hangs on the walls at East St. Louis High School.

Long term, Hawthorne hopes to become a college coach. Maybe back in C-U.

Hawthorne, 28, is a big fan of Illinois' Lovie Smith.

"A great guy," Hawthorne said. "Very energetic. Loves his players. That's the type of coach you need to help the players grow."

Hawthorne's Illinois teams won consecutive bowl games in 2010-11. He wants to see his school return to the postseason.

"Most definitely," Hawthorne said. "Lovie's going to get the ball back rolling for Illini football."

Hawthorne hopes to see more players from the St. Louis area join the Illinois program. Eight are on the current roster and two more are coming (so far) in the Class of 2019.

"Any kid that I know they're going after, I try to put a bug in their ear," Hawthorne said, "and talk Illini football."

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

Camp confidential

Day 3 is up next for Illinois football training camp. Beat writer Bob Asmussen breaks it down:

WHAT HAPPENED SUNDAY

They went to church, read The News-Gazette, relaxed. Heck, maybe even watched a baseball game. Sundays are off for the players in July. They will be expected to return rested and ready.

WHAT TO EXPECT TODAY

Contact. When the pads go on, the intensity heats up, The break from workouts should mean an inspired group hits the fields bright and early.

Scheduling matters

Here's when the 12 remaining Illinois football training camp practices take place:

DATE TIME LOCATION

Today 9-11 a.m. Campus Rec Fields

Tuesday 9-11 a.m. Campus Rec Fields

Wednesday 3-5 p.m. Campus Rec Fields

Thursday 9-11 a.m. Campus Rec Fields

Friday 9-11 a.m. Campus Rec Fields

Saturday 3-5 p.m. Campus Rec Fields

Aug. 13 9-11 a.m. Campus Rec Fields

Aug. 14 9-11 a.m. Campus Rec Fields

Aug. 15 3-5 p.m. Campus Rec Fields

Aug. 16 9-11 a.m. Campus Rec Fields

Aug. 17 9-11 a.m. Campus Rec Fields

Aug. 18 3-5 p.m. Memorial Stadium