New Illinois co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Mike Phair has learned from some of the best defensive minds in football.
During his 13 years in the NFL, his mentors included first-year Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn (previously the defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks), Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith.
"There's a lot of stuff and the way I teach things that come from Coach Lovie (Smith) and Coach (Rod) Marinelli, guys I've been with," Phair said. "The biggest thing I can tell you about coach Lovie was taking the ball away. That was the big thing. I know Coach (Tim) Beckman has talked all about that. That something I know everywhere I've gone from there, it was the same message: just taking the ball away and scoring. Not just taking it away, but you got to score too."
This coaching tree has a simple but specific philosophy for the defensive linemen in its one-gap system: disruption!
College and NFL teams that execute the over/under 4-2-5 (four defensive linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs) or 4-3-4 fronts (four DLs, three LBs, four DBs) use smaller defensive linemen that rely on quickness, power and athleticism to penetrate the offensive line. Penetration from the front four should create negative plays for the offense either by disrupting the running game behind the line of scrimmage or by pressuring the quarterback.
Phair thinks the Illini's front-four personnel fits the scheme.
"We have guys who can get up field, get vertical and penetrate," Phair said. "I like the aggressive style when you play with it because you're really trying to just knock the run out on the way to the quarterback. That's what you're trying to do in that type of defense."
Phair was brought in to stabilize the Illini's front seven to be better at the point of attack, stop the run, minimize missed tackles and force turnovers.
"That's something from coach Lovie and the four-man front, getting vertical, redirecting, penetrating," Phair said. "Disrupting is probably the best way to describe it."
The four defensive linemen and two or three linebackers will be responsible for "one gap". This system allows the defenders to play fast and get to their assignment without hesitation, without having to read the offensive play.
For example, Illini junior defensive tackle Rob Bain plays the "1 technique" or nose tackle responsible for the "A-gap," which is located between the guard and center. The nose tackle is normally your biggest, strongest defensive lineman who can draw a double team and eat up space to free up a path for other defenders to get to the ball carrier.
Illini junior Jarrod "Chunky" Clements will align at the other defensive tackle position, known as the "3 technique." For this position, think of Buccaneers All-Pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. Not only is McCoy a great run stuffer but also a great pass rusher too. The 3 technique aligns between the offensive guard and tackle. In the run game, Clements will be responsible for the "B-gap." With a name like “Chunky” he’ll make a living in the opponents backfield stopping the run as well as putting pressure on the quarterback.
Junior Teko Powell should be able to play both defensive tackle spots in this scheme due to his blend of size and burst.
Remember the defensive line's primary job is to play on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage. So the goal is to blow up plays before they start and disengage with the offensive lineman to either make the tackle or keep the second-level (linebackers) untouched so they can finish the job.
The two inside linebackers Mason Moheim and T.J. Neal will benefit from the “One Gap” front. It should allow them to play faster downhill toward the line of scrimmage. First, they must secure their respective gaps versus the run and then scrape to the ball carrier.
"To me, it dictates where (the linebackers) are going," Phair said. "You're getting your gap a lot quicker and you're seeing it. There's no guessing. You're getting vertical and making the play downhill. That's the part that I got from being in that system with Coach Lovie."
Linebackers and offensive linemen battle roughly every play. With another year of experience, Illinois should improve on how well they stack and shed the blockers -- a struggle last year at times for the linebackers.
When Jihad Ward returns to the field -- he had successful minor knee surgery last week and will miss at least the first two games -- he will give the Illini flexibility. Ward is big enough and athletic enough to play all four defensive line positions.
Ward's natural spot is strongside defensive end, meaning he will always align to the offense's strength, in anticipation of the run. However, in obvious passing situations, I can see Ward lining up at either defensive tackle position because his size, length and quickness will be a mismatch for most centers and guards.
Think of the success Justin Tuck had with the New York Giants when he moved inside to defensive and rushed the quarterback with the Giants “NASCAR” package. It was the Giants way of adding an interior pass rush to get immediate heat on the passer. This may be a way for the Illini defense to get more pressure on the quarterback with their four best pass rushers. But the Illini should have enough depth to rotate fresh defensive linemen to wear down the opposing offensive line, forcing the offense to play more one dimensional.
I’m looking forward to watching Phair in his first year as co-defensive coordinator.
There likely will be a learning curve each week, along with different adjustments between the non-conference and Big Ten schedule. But Phair brings a new perspective to an Illini defense that has been dominated by physical, Big Ten offenses the past two seasons. Phair also adds an extra voice during game-planning each week, working with co-defensive coordinator Tim Banks and head coach Tim Beckman.
Phair has unique insight as a former NFL coach and scout -- studying physical attributes and traits of not just defensive linemen but an entire team -- under some of the best NFL defensive minds.
With that perspective, Phair will be able to break down opposing team offenses to find multiple weaknesses that will benefit not only the defensive line, but the entire Illini defense.
Micheal Young is the football analyst for IlliniInquirer.com. Young was a four-year starter for Illinois football and a team captain. The St. Louis native also played for the NFL's Arizona Cardinals from 2001-04. He serves as a color analyst for several broadcast outlets and co-hosts an Illini podcast with former UI teammate Carey Davis on Huddlepass.com.