CHAMPAIGN — Donny Navarro knew what he was getting into when he transferred from Valparaiso to Illinois. He was going to have to sit out to earn his eligibility. Take in the 2018 football season from the sideline.
Easier to talk about than actually do, it turns out.
“The first couple games of the season last year I was pretty upset just watching,” Navarro said. “I knew I was capable of being successful. It was frustrating. I wanted to be out there. I wanted to help my team in way possible, but I had to wait.
“As the season kind of went on, that started to set in. I’m going to keep practicing this hard, but hopefully the success will come next year.”
Slowly, steadily, it did. Navarro has worked his way into a primary role in the Illinois offense after injuries to Trevon Sidney and Ricky Smalling. His stats don’t leap off the page, but he scored in the Illini’s upset of then-No. 6 Wisconsin and hauled in a circus catch that set up the first of two Dre Brown touchdowns in last week’s win against Rutgers.
Count on Navarro filling the gaps — simply make plays when called upon — again this week with Illinois (5-4, 3-3 Big Ten) set to return to action at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Michigan State (4-4, 2-3).
“I’m not surprised,” fellow wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe said about Navarro stepping up into a bigger role. “I see what he does in practice every single day. One of the hardest workers on the team — much less the offense. Seeing the fruits of his labor come about and him be able to enjoy the success he’s invested into is awesome.
“He has a chip on his shoulder. Being a walk-on, it’s not like people just give you opportunities. You have to earn everything that you get, and he’s done that and more.”
Though, after getting surprised with a full scholarship at Thursday’s team meeting, he is a walk-on no longer.
Illinois’ first look at Navarro came in training camp last fall. Given the chance to make plays in camp, he did.
“He was consistent,” Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith said. “You kind of saw it last fall. You saw it come back in the spring. He’s just been consistent since he’s been here. ... With each catch, with each game, he continues to get more confidence with our staff and with Brandon (Peters) as well. Extremely impressed and happy with Donny’s performances so far.”
Navarro’s real prep for this season came as he repped at wide receiver on Illinois’ scout team last fall. Part of his responsibility was helping the defense prepare for what it would face each week, but he could multi-task and work on his own skill set at the same time.
Facing Illinois’ No. 1 defense on a daily basis helped hone his abilities. Regular matchups with Illini cornerbacks Nate Hobbs and Tony Adams certainly benefitted the Naperville native.
“I always liked going against Nate Hobbs, for sure,” Navarro said. “He’s an athletic corner — long and strong. He was always the hardest to beat as well as Tony Adams. I was always battling with Tony. I always wanted to go against those guys because I knew those guys were the real deal.”
Navarro’s successes against Hobbs and Adams gave him confidence he could do it against other Big Ten teams this season.
“I knew this was coming,” he said. “I knew that I was going to get an opportunity. Once I did get that opportunity, I needed to take it and do well with it.”