Illinois coach Lovie Smith got a fantastic two-for-one deal when he hired Hardy Nickerson as his defensive coordinator. Once Nickerson arrived in Champaign, his son decided to follow as a graduate transfer from California.
Hardy Jr.’s impact has been felt immediately. Though he didn’t arrive until the start of preseason practice, the linebacker was elected a team captain. In the opener against Murray State, he made a team-leading 11 tackles with a sack.
Smith said on the Big Ten coaches’ call Tuesday that it came as a surprise when Nickerson decided to transfer to Illinois for his final year after being a three-year starter and 2015 captain at Cal.
“We tried to put together the best possible staff, which we were able to do, and then once you get the dad and later on it works out where we could get a football player in young Hardy Nickerson, just a cherry on top,” Smith said.
Hardy Sr. was a four-time Pro Bowl linebacker in his 16-year NFL playing career, and he was an assistant under Smith with the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He left a job coaching the San Francisco 49ers’ linebackers to join Smith at Illinois.
The younger Nickerson played in 35 games for California and made a team-leading 112 tackles last season, including 16 against Arizona State in his final game for the Golden Bears.
“His dad was a student of the game. He knew what he was supposed to do every play and then it was left up to his athletic ability to make plays,” Smith said. “I see that a lot with young Hardy. He’s the quarterback of our defense. He can get us in and out of better defenses. He sets the tone for everything we do.”
Other notes from around the Big Ten:
First-year coach Chris Ash is personally involved with Rutgers’ special teams, and he called it “gut-wrenching” that Washington scored touchdowns on a 92-yard kick return and 68-yard punt return in the Scarlet Knights’ 48-13 loss in Seattle.
“Any time you give up a punt return and a kick return for a touchdown, those things don’t happen very often and when you get two of them in one game, it’s very disappointing,” Ash said. “The fact we have spent an insane amount of time on special teams, I’m involved in coaching special teams, I thought we would go out and perform better than that, and we didn’t. I wasn’t any happier after watching the tape.”
The Big Ten was 12-2 on the season’s opening weekend, the second in three years the conference came out of the first week with 12 wins. … Four Big Ten teams scored at least 50 points, the first time the conference had four teams top 50 points in the same week since Sept. 1, 2007. … Michigan’s point total in a 63-3 win over Hawaii marked the Wolverines’ highest in an opener since 1905, when Fielding H. Yost’s squad defeated Ohio Wesleyan, 65-0. … Minnesota RB Shannon Brooks (foot) and TE Brandon Lingen (shoulder) were to be re-evaluated Tuesday. Coach Tracy Claeys said he thinks both are getting closer to being ready to play.