In 2016 Illini football finally has something that they haven’t had since the early to mid ‘90s- a true identity. In the days of Kevin Hardy, Simeon Rice and Dana Howard, Illini football was essentially Linebacker U. Light. Although 2001 and 2007 were special seasons, they seem too fluky now in retrospect and hence don’t help to figure an identity.
In the 1980s Illini football was a quarterback factory, but most of you reading this would regard that as ancient history. In Lovie Smith, they now have an identity, and that identity is defense.
Identity is big; it takes you places. Look at Wisconsin, in both sports, you know what their identity is and that has kept them consistently relevant.
For Illinois, it starts at the top in Lovie, and then continues with new defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson. Named to the 1990s NFL all-decade team, the famed linebacker brought in his son, Hardy Jr to quarterback the defense as the starting Mike linebacker this fall.
Cal’s leading tackler last season, Nickerson helps fill a void in the position group due to the early defection of 2015’s leading tackler T.J. Neal and the graduation of four year starter Mason Mannheim.
The strength of this team though is the defensive line and Lovie Smith said as much at Big Ten Media Day. It’s the strongest position and it’s also where you’ll find the team’s best player and top NFL talent in senior defensive end Dawuane Smoot.
He led last year’s team with three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Smoot, who had eight sacks and 15 TFLs last season will lead a pass rush that should be formidable. The Illini were 15th nationally against the pass last season. After being a train wreck for almost all of 2012, 2013 and the first half of 2014, the Illini football brought some heavy D under then coordinator Tim Banks in the second half of ’14 and then into ’15. Illinois was an impressive 30th in total defense, 37th in points allowed last year.
Now we’ll see what the unit can do under Lovie and Nickerson.
You can hear Smoot hold court at Media Day in the 1-on-1s below. There are two different audio files from Sound Cloud:
Smoot discusses a whole host of topics, including how, for the cause of adding weight to his frame, he ate two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and drank a glass of milk right before bed every night. Then, when it was time for him to drop weight, he cut out the bed time PB&J.
Jihad Ward was the best player on the 2015 Illini football team. He’s gone now, having graduated and then being selected as the 44th overall pick, second round of the NFL Draft by the Oakland Raiders. Perhaps Smoot will play himself into the status of being a second round pick come April.
DL talent and depth is what you see year after year at the top programs. It might not be sexy, it doesn’t sell tickets, get ratings or page views (trust me on that last one especially), but it does go a very long way towards reaching true define success. It has more glamour and mainstream appeal than offensive line, but not a whole lot more.
Still, take a look the programs like LSU, Alabama, Ohio State, and others at that level- every year, they’re stacked in this department.
If you’re reading up on and following defensive linemen, you’re a true football wonk who’s really into this stuff. You are definitely not a bandwagon, tourist entry level fan. Let’s take a look at the rest of guys who will start in the Illini football defensive front this season.
DT Chunky Clements
You got to love the name right? How can you not. Chunky has started alongside Bain for two and half years and they’ve played side by side for four years, so they have a good chemistry together.
DE Carroll Phillips
Phillips was a role player last year, a third down specialist. In 2016, he’s an every down guy who will start at the end opposite Smoot. Nickerson the Elder believes that he could be a very special breakout player.
Phillips is very eager to make the most out of his opportunity this fall- “I want to take the defense to a whole ‘nother level, take the sacks to a whole ‘nother level and the TFLs to a whole ‘nother level and everybody on the D-line feels the same.”
Phillips said former Illini great Simeon Rice is one of his role models.
DT Rob Bain
You can debate about what the best team’s best position group is, but there is no debate as to where the most experience is. You’re entitled to your own opinions, but you’re not entitled to your own facts. Bain very much welcomes the high expectations on his grouping.
“We don’t want to shy away from that, I think we’re the most experienced group on the team,” said Bain
“we have a lot of guys who have played a lot of snaps and we welcome those expectations, and all that pressure. We want to be the strength of the team.”
Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank.net, partnered with FOX Sports Engage Network. and News Now. Banks, a former writer for the Washington Times, currently contributes regularly to the Chicago Tribune’s RedEye publication and Bold Global.