Fighting for the Illini
In 2015, the only headlines coming out of the University of California were about the future number one draft pick, Jared Goff. There was little chatter about the Bears’ defense and the veteran linebacker that was stuffing the stat sheets. Last season Hardy Nickerson Jr. led the Bears with a career high 112 tackles, which was ranked third in the Pac 12. The Cal Bears honored their defensive captain by naming him team MVP and there were high expectations for Hardy’s redshirt senior year at Berkeley.
All of that changed when Hardy was given an opportunity to graduate from Cal and transfer to the University of Illinois to play for his father, Hardy Nickerson Sr., and the new Fighting Illini head coach Lovie Smith.
“My dad getting the job and having him and Coach Smith coach me my senior year is what brought me here. You know what he (Lovie) has done with Urlacher, Briggs and Brooks, so I just try to soak up as much as I can. Lovie is great, he’s hands on and gives a lot of tips and pointers and really coaches us up. He doesn’t just sit back like some other coaches he gets in there and really helps out the linebackers and the whole team.”
I’m sure the Hardy’s father, who is now the Illini defensive coordinator, knows a thing or two about being hands on as well. Nickerson Sr. is a former five-time Pro-Bowl linebacker who spent 16 years in the NFL and was named to the 1990 all-decade team. While Hardy Sr. was on the Buccaneers he was mentored by Lovie, who was his positon coach at the time. The two built a strong friendship and when Lovie was the head man for the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Nickerson Sr. served as his LB coach.
The knowledge and direction Hardy has been receiving has helped the 6’0” 230 pound senior get off to a fast start as he leads the Big Ten in total tackles (56) and tackles per game (9.7). Nickerson is playing a different brand of football now that he’s in the Big Ten, and he’s lived up to the challenge so far.
“The Pac 12 has more spread offenses and the linebackers have to be more athletic, kind of similar to some of the teams we’ve played so far besides Nebraska who runs more of a pro-style offense. But now we’re heading into the heart of the Big Ten schedule with Michigan, Minnesota, Michigan State and Wisconsin. It’s going to be more downhill football which is exciting for linebackers.”
Illinois will try and gain some momentum from their 24-7 victory over Rutgers, a win they desperately needed last week in New Jersey. Prior to the victory, Illinois was on a four game losing streak including a four quarter meltdown to Nebraska and overtime loss to Purdue that could have been avoided had they made one of their four field goal attempts in regulation.
“It felt good to get a win. We had a couple tough losses late, one to Nebraska and in OT vs Purdue. We finally got some turnovers last week and that’s what we were doing all training camp, we have to keep creating turnovers to help us win.”
Illinois will need Nickerson to continue his dominant play this Saturday as they take on #3 Michigan in Ann Arbor. As a three year started at Cal, Hardy has played in some of the most hostile environments in the college game, including two games against a high powered Oregon offense in Autzen stadium. Although the Big House holds about 50,000 more fans, Autzen has a recorded a higher decibel rating in recent years. The Fighting Illini will rely on Nickerson’s experience and leadership as they attempt to pull off the biggest win U of I has had in several years.
I’ve never been there (The Big House) but I’m excited to play in front of the what, 102,000 people they hold? This is not too big of a stage for us and I’m going to do whatever it takes to help our team. I’m sure we’re going to come out extra juiced but it’s not about the stage you play on, what you do on the field is what’s going to matter.”
Hardy Nickerson Jr and the Fighting Illini will kick off in Ann Arbor vs the Michigan Wolverines at 2pm CT this Saturday. Nickerson has collected 10+ tackles in 4 of 6 games this season and his career 304 tackles leads all active power-5 conference linebackers.