Illinois senior linebacker Nate Bussey is out these days to hurt quarterbacks, but it hasn’t stopped him from dreaming of still being one.
Once considered a top high school quarterback in the Washington D.C. area, Bussey used to torment defenses with his running and passing abilities. Bussey’s YouTube highlight videos still exist for anyone who want to judge for themselves.
Even he often returns to those videos and watches a much more slender and less muscular Nate Bussey race past defensive backs for touchdowns and throw bombs usually to former high school and college teammate Arrelious Benn for scores.
“Playing quarterback was my passion growing up,” said Bussey, whose team has a bye this week. “I often go back and watch those videos more than people know. People often ask me if I miss it.”
Since Illinois offensive Paul Petrino isn’t likely to draw up a linebacker option pass for Bussey anytime soon, he now finds other ways to get his hands on the football. For one, he plays catch before practices and games. Secondly, and more importantly to Illinois, he’s been running down quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers as if they’ve been stealing his ball.
Through three games, Bussey, a quarterback turned safety turned inside linebacker turned outside linebacker, is off to the best start in his career. He began the year by matching a career-high eight tackles against Missouri and setting a career-best two tackles for a loss. For the season, he’s tied for fourth on the team with 19 tackles.
Bussey is proud of those numbers, too. He put a lot of time in adding nearly 30 pounds of muscle to his frame and learning how to become an effective defensive player throughout his career.
“My passion right now is to destroy my opponents,” Bussey said. “I feel like I’m making the plays I’m expected to make. I feel like my play at outside linebacker speaks for itself.”
There were two plays that especially screamed for him against Missouri. On back-to-back plays, Bussey became wide receiver T.J. Moe’s worst nightmare.
On the first one, Missouri set up a screen for Moe, Bussey read it, quickly eluded the Tigers’ blocker and dropped Moe for a three-yard loss on the right side of the field. On the next play, Missouri attempted the same play on the left side, and Bussey recognized it again. As Moe caught the ball behind the line of scrimmage, Bussey avoided Missouri’s blocker, darted at Moe and delivered a shot that popped Moe’s helmet off.
“I guess they thought they could run the same play for a gain, but they didn’t,” Bussey said. “On campus, people will come up to me and say they saw me on TV and congratulate me on the hit.”
Illinois outside linebackers coach Ron West wasn’t surprised by the back-to-back stops. If anything, he would have been surprised if Bussey hadn’t reacted as he did.
“That’s what he’s got to do on those particular plays,” West said. “There shouldn’t be a wideout in the Big Ten that should be able to block him. That’s what we want him to think.”
Heading into season, Bussey and Illinois’ defense were questioned. Many weren’t sure if the defense would able to bounce back from last season’s woes.
Even when Illinois faced Southern Illinois, an FCS team, in Week 2, the Illini were only favored by slightly more than a touchdown because of those defensive concerns. Illinois won the game 35-3.
Bussey, though, doesn’t mind people questioning him and his defensive teammates.
“When people do that, it motivates us and pushes us to play hard,” Bussey said. “The defense has played well. I have a good feeling about it. It feels like 2007 when we went to the Rose Bowl.”
If Illinois can get back to another bowl, maybe then it would be time for a trick play with Bussey getting his hands on the ball again.
“I definitely would take that offer,” Bussey said.