Illinois' Steve Hull (!) going out with bang

Senior day arrives at Illinois this week, but you couldn't blame Steve Hull for wishing his five years at the school were just beginning.

Hull fits the definition of a late bloomer, at least as a receiver. Over his past three games, he has erupted for 27 catches, 498 yards and five touchdowns, leading all FBS receivers in yardage during that time span. That's particularly surprising, since Hull had just 340 receiving yards in his entire career before this late-career renaissance.

"It's kind of unexpected for a lot of people," Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase told ESPN.com. "But when he originally came here, I would have guessed by our senior year that he would have been a dynamic receiver who made a lot of plays."

But Hull nearly never got that chance.

He was recruited by Ron Zook as a receiver and spent his redshirt year of 2009 working at the position. But a more pressing need on defense prompted the coaches to switch him to safety for the 2010 season. That's where he'd stay -- whenever he was healthy enough to be on the field.

Hull dealt with a sprained ankle as a redshirt freshman and a back injury that cost him two games as a sophomore. Last year, a lingering shoulder problem limited him to just five games. The shoulder issue had gotten so bad that in the offseason he was told by a doctor that he should quit football.

That diagnosis didn't sit well with Hull, who got a second opinion from a head and neck specialist with the NFL's Cincinnati Bengals. He was cleared to play again, as long as he moved to offense to avoid some of the wear and tear of making tackles with that shoulder.

Illinois coach Tim Beckman said he wanted to make sure Hull stayed on the team because of his leadership abilities.

"Steve really wants to be successful and wants to help this football team," Beckman said. "He's gone up and made some tremendous catches. He's really been a guy we've counted on to move the sticks."

Scheelhaase had occasionally lobbied the coaches to move Hull to his side of the ball. And that's where Hull always wanted to play.

"Of course, I came here to play receiver, and it's my first love," Hull told ESPN.com. "But at the same time, there isn’t a second of regret for the time I spent on defense. I was part of some great defenses and part of back-to-back bowl wins. I learned a great deal, and the things I learned playing safety I can apply now as a receiver."

Hull said moving back to receiver after three years away took some adjustment, especially with his footwork. But he has grown more comfortable and confident with each passing week, and after Ryan Lankford went down with a season-ending injury, Scheelhaase needed a new go-to target. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Hull provided that with 224 receiving yards and two scores against Indiana, 105 yards and a touchdown vs. Ohio State and last week's 10-catch, 169-yard, two-touchdown effort as Illinois beat Purdue to end its 20-game Big Ten losing streak. He was named Big Ten offensive player of the week on Monday.

"He offers so much to the quarterback, not only his athletic ability -- his size, his speed, his jumping ability -- but just his mental ability," Scheelhaase said. "He's able to see what the defense is giving us, able to communicate and help me out as a quarterback."

Trust and communication run deep between Scheelhaase and Hull. They met during their official visits as recruits and ended up rooming together as freshmen. As they traded stories, they realized they had once played against each other in AAU basketball in the fifth grade. The two have remained close throughout college, and Hull served as a groomsman in Scheelhaase's wedding this offseason.

"That really allows us to trust each other, undoubtedly, during the game," Hull said. "He can make throws that some people might look at kind of cross-eyed, but he just trusts me to be in the right place, and I expect the ball to be there."

Hull has become a fan favorite at Illinois, and it doesn't hurt that yelling "Steve Hull!" echoes a certain character from "Arrested Development" who enjoys shouting out his own first and last name.

"A lot of people have actually adopted it this season," Hull said. "The band started doing it and then the student body. It's kind of filtered all over the team now. It's fun to see and fun to mess around with. That’s pretty cool."

Now there's nothing arrested about Hull's development as a receiver, which has happened better late than never.