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Top newcomer: Illinois Fighting Illini

The newest crop of college football players are starting to arrive on campuses all over the country. Freshmen and transfers will make their first impressions at summer classes and workouts with their new, veteran teammates in the next couple weeks. Most will be hoping to lay the groundwork for an immediate impact this season. This week on the Big Ten blog, we will be identifying the player from each of the league’s teams that has the best chance to become a well-known name by the end of the fall. First up is Illinois.

Illinois top newcomer: LB Hardy Nickerson Jr.

New Illini defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson didn’t need to hunt for very long to fill the biggest hole on the unit he inherited this March. Illinois needs to replace two veteran, productive starters at linebacker, so Nickerson called on his son to leave the West coast and help out.

Nickerson Jr. graduated from Cal this spring, where he led the Golden Bears with 112 tackles in 2015 while serving as the team captain. He’s played in more than 30 games in his college career, which gives him a more impressive and complete resume than just about any newcomer at any Big Ten school this summer. One of Lovie Smith’s first hires in Champaign ended up coming with a nice bonus.

"This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to play my final year of college football for my father and head coach Lovie Smith," Nickerson wrote in a statement announcing his plans to transfer. "It is an opportunity that I simply cannot pass up."

The Illini have to replace their top three tacklers from a year ago. Two of them -- Mason Monheim who graduated this spring and T.J. Neal who transferred to Auburn in January before Smith was hired -- were mainstays in the middle of the defense. Without much depth there, it looked like Illinois might have to rely on unknown entities like freshman Dele Harding to step up. Though Harding still might get his shot to play early, Nickerson provides a seasoned option to hold down the middle of a new scheme.

Most of the team will still be learning Illinois’ scheme this summer, but Nickerson should be able to provide help in that department as well. He and his dad have had plenty of time to discuss Xs and Os, and this is their second time sharing a locker room. They were a player-coach duo for two years in high school before the elder Nickerson took a job on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers staff with Smith. The Nickersons have known Smith since 2007 when Nickerson Sr. coached on Smith’s Chicago Bears staff.

Given Smith’s history in the NFL, it’s safe to assume a strong defense will be a cornerstone for the Illini if the new coaching staff has some success. Adding the younger Nickerson to the roster gives them a ready-to-play veteran who already has a good amount of knowledge about his coaches and what they expect. His arrival gives Smith and his staff a nice head start on setting up the defense.