CHAMPAIGN — Tony Adams saw both sides of the decision.
He watched fellow Illinois football teammates Jamal Woods, Isaiah Gay and Kendall Smith announce they would return to the program for the 2021 season, utilizing an extra year of eligibility offered by the NCAA in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Adams also witnessed Illini teammates Jake Hansen, Milo Eifler and Nate Hobbs declare for the NFL draft.
What would Adams, a four-year defensive back at Illinois, determine was his best course of action? He released that information Sunday, with an announcement that he’ll stick with the Illini in 2021.
“It was a real hard decision. First off, I know that I have more to prove in college, so I didn’t want to declare for the draft,” Adams said. “I just didn’t feel like it was my time yet. I feel like what I’ve done in college football is not the player I am.”
Perhaps more interesting, though, is how Adams arrived at that point. Adams contracted COVID-19 late in the Illini’s 2020 campaign, missing the team’s final two games. That provided him sufficient time to ponder his eligibility choice — and how to make it.
On the latter front, Adams steered clear of social media and traveled to Washington, D.C., with a friend for about two weeks of training.
During that trip east, Adams connected with former Illinois running back Reggie Corbin. Adams also chatted with ex-Illini Terry Hawthorne and current Illinois running backs coach Cory Patterson.
The message he received from that trio: believe in yourself.
“I’ve talked to a lot of great mentors, a lot of people, and they were just telling me basically, ‘This is your decision,’” Adams said. “(They told me to) get quiet, pray about it and trust your gut, and this is what my gut was telling me to do.”Adams then went home to Belleville before returning to Champaign-Urbana to meet with coach Bret Bielema, defensive coordinator Ryan Walters and defensive backs coach Aaron Henry.
Adams was recruited out of high school by Walters when Walters was on Missouri’s coaching staff, and Adams said he “already liked him a lot.”
The 6-foot, 205-pound Adams also received good first impressions from Bielema and Henry.
“For my last year … I wouldn’t want nobody coming in and beating around the bush,” Adams said. “I want you to give it to me straight up, what it is or what it ain’t, and I feel like (Bielema) did that and I really liked that. And Coach Henry, he just seemed like a loving, caring dude.”
Adams has played in 29 games during his first four seasons with Illinois. He suited up for six games during the 2020 campaign, finishing second on the team with 51 tackles while adding an interception. He’s turned in 141 tackles, 7 1/2 tackles for loss, two sacks and five interceptions during his Illini career, splitting time between safety and cornerback.
Adams acknowledged he’s willing to suit up at either position later this year.
“I’m just going to let the coaches put me where they feel is best and I’m going to get the job done,” Adams said. “I’m going to go ball.”
Beyond trying to improve himself for a potential NFL career, Adams also desired to stay at Illinois because he sees it as his responsibility to show younger players from the state’s Metro East region that they can succeed as Illini.
“It’s a lot of kids there that would probably love to come to Illinois,” Adams said. “I would love to show kids you can stay home and win.”
The next step in Adams’ progression, he said, is “treating myself like a pro.”
“Coach (Lovie) Smith used to talk about it all the time, but until you get older, you don’t really understand the mental side of the game,” Adams said. “Believing what I’m seeing and just trusting my instincts … and I feel like if I do that, this year will be my best year yet.”