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Illini’s Supo Sanni back making plays in secondary

Illinois safety Supo Sanni knocks ball loose from Arkansas State wide receiver Taylor Stockemer for fumble. | Seth Perlman~AP

Illinois safety Supo Sanni knocks the ball loose from Arkansas State wide receiver Taylor Stockemer for a fumble. | Seth Perlman~AP

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Updated: November 10, 2011 9:37AM

CHAMPAIGN — The best indicator of the ebullient atmosphere after Illinois’ 56-3 thrashing of South Dakota State on Saturday was Supo Sanni’s smile.

The former Homewood-Flossmoor star, a junior free safety, played a significant part in the Jackrabbits gaining only 96 yards of offense and six first downs. In the third quarter, Sanni punctuated his strong day by recording his first career interception.

“I just did what my coaches tell us to do,” Sani said. “They say whenever the quarterback throws the ball, it’s ours.”

It was emphatic evidence that Sanni is back, metaphorically and otherwise, after he missed the 2010 season with a ruptured right Achilles.

Michael Buchanan, Sanni’s high school teammate at Homewood-Flossmoor and his current roommate, is happy to have his friend back on the field.

“I’ve known him for like eight years, and it’s just great knowing he’s back and making plays,” Buchanan said. 

In football, timing is everything. That’s especially true for a defensive player whose game is predicated on aggression, intuition and reaction.

“I’ve been playing this position a long time,” the Chicago Heights native said. “Those early plays I made out there, they got me into a good rhythm, they got me going and I was able to feed off that energy.”

Sanni has eight tackles, a forced fumble and the interception for the 2-0 Illini. He has evolved into the team’s most intriguing defensive prospect.

At 6-4, 220 pounds, Sanni is extremely athletic, rangy and dynamic. He’s a safety who hits like a linebacker. At Homewood-Flossmoor, he was a two-sport star who started as a freshman on a basketball team with current Toronto Raptors forward Julian Wright. Sanni led the Vikings to the Class 8A semifinals his senior year and was a nationally rated receiver.

He also had a lot of basketball scholarships from top mid-major programs.

“I was a 6-4 guard that could do some things out on the court,” he said. “I didn’t make the decision for sure that I was going to play football until my senior season. I sat down and talked with my parents, and we talked about my future and where was I best suited, especially for the next level, and that was football.”

Illinois coach Ron Zook, seeing his unusual size and skill set, convinced Sanni that his future was on defense. 

His rehabilitation last year was arduous. He admits it also was difficult emotionally, especially after the defense’s late-season collapse that contributed to disappointing losses against Michigan and Minnesota.

“There were times when I did get very emotionally because, however much I wanted, I could not be out there contributing to the team,” he said.

Now, Sanni and Illinois take a huge jump in competition by hosting Arizona State on Saturday night.

“We’re coming back against a good team, and we’ll be excited to play,” Sanni said.

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