IlliniInquirer.com will break down each position group daily for the next nine days.
Day 1: Quarterbacks
Day 2: Running backs
Day 3: Wide receivers
Day 4: Tight ends
Day 5: Offensive line
Day 6: Defensive line
The starter: Dawuane Smoot, junior
During the Tim Beckman era at Illinois (since 2012), no Illini front-four player has topped five sacks in a season. Michael Buchanan is the leader at 4.5 sacks in 2012, followed by Houston Bates with 3.5. Last season, Austin Teitsma and Jihad Ward led the group last year with 3.0 sacks each.
During the Tim Beckman era at Illinois, only one front-four player has topped 10.0 tackles for loss in a season. That player, Houston Bates (12.0 TFL in 2013), wrecked havoc on his former Illini teammates, totaling 5.5 sacks for Louisiana Tech in the Bulldogs' 35-18 Heart of Dallas Bowl victory.
The point is, Illinois has seriously lacked difference-making disruptors since Whitney Mercilus' record-setting season in 2011. The LEO position – a hybrid defensive end/linebacker, think 3-4 NFL outside linebacker – is built for difference-making disruptors. While Illinois has a lot of talent at the position, it needs to find a producer.
Junior Dawuane Smoot showed flashes last season (33 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks) but really disappeared during long stretches (just 2.5 tackles for loss during Big Ten play). Smoot has the physical tools. He's 6-foot-3 and a strong 265 pounds, and was a star track athlete in high school, competing at nationals in the shot put, discus and 400m hurdles. But he needs to continue to add to and develop his pass rush moves. Focus on Jihad Ward should help him get one-on-one battles, and he must take advantage.He was forced to play before he was ready due to lack of other options. But he's one of many players that can't use youth as an excuse anymore. Illinois needs its best potential pass rusher to produce.
Behind Smoot are two good-looking athletes. Junior Carroll Phillips (6-foot-3, 240 pounds) practiced at both LEO and inside linebacker last season and played the first seven games as a situational pass rusher. His season ended early though due to a neck injury and he missed most of spring ball. Phillips needs reps. He doesn't always know where to be, when he's on the field, he immediately gives the Illinois defense a boost of speed and size – which it sorely needs.
The staff is quietly optimistic about getting junior-college transfer Sean Adesanya in pads. Like Phillips, the 6-foot-3, 230-pound junior – whose full first name is Olowaseun – looks the part and the staff thinks it may have found a producer. But we'll have to see how he handles Big Ten practice before we know how he handles Big Ten offenses.
Redshirt freshman Henry McGrew caught some attention for a very productive second half of the spring game (six tackles, 3.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks). The 6-foot-3, 250-pound Kansas native was a three-sport athlete in high school and provides solid depth.
The starter: Eric Finney, senior
STAR, the hybrid linebacker/defensive back in the Illini defense, is an overlooked position, but Earnest Thomas is the defense's biggest loss. Thomas was nicknamed “The Honey Badger” by his teammates and was a bad defense's best playmaker, totaling 9.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and one interception. Thomas was a perfect fit for the STAR position – supposed to be a position filled by a playmaker – and should've played their his entire career (the staff just felt that bad about safety) at the position. Now, Illinois must find his replacement.
James Crawford – a 6-foot-2, 220-pound redshirt sophomore out of Florida power St. Thomas Aquinas – looks like a prototype for the position: long, solidly built and fast. He has great sideline-to-sideline speed to chase down ball carriers. But he's played in just seven games and recorded no tackles so far during his career. The staff, however, remains high on his potential.
Eric Finney, the senior, has been a staple on special teams. He arrived to Illinois in 2013 as a likely starter but suffered an injury, forcing the failed Mike Svetina experience at STAR (I felt bad for Svetina because he was ill-suited for the position). Finney is undersized (6-foot, 220 pounds) but has more experience. The staff will make Crawford win the job in camp, but his physical tools give him the edge.
The staff fells like it got a good one in true freshman Justice Williams. The Frisco, Texas, native has a great frame (6-foot-3, 210 pounds) and is a great athlete (he holds his high school records in the 800m run and 4x400 relay). He may work his way onto the field as a special teamer, and once he adds more strength could eventually push Crawford.