CHAMPAIGN - Dawuane Smoot stood out on the track in high school.
While the Groveport (Ohio) Madison High School tack standout looked the part when he would throw the discus and shot put, the then 225-pound hulk looked a bit out of place among his thinner competitors in the 110-meter and 300-meter hurdles.
Smoot, who advanced to regionals in the hurdles, “just loved’ that everyone counted him out -- until they saw him cross the finish line first.
“I feel like everybody underestimated me because I was bigger than everyone else,” said Smoot, now a 270-pound junior pass rusher at Illinois. “They were like, ‘Aww, he’s not going to do anything.’ But when I got up there, I just loved being the underdog, going out there and winning some races.”
That combination of size and speed is what makes Smoot -- who ranks sixth in the Big Ten in sacks (5.0) and third in tackles for loss (11.5) -- so difficult to block on the football field.
First-year Illinois defensive line coach Mike Phair saw the raw ability when he first watched Smoot’s film and saw him practice this spring.
“The first thing that jumped out at me is he can rush,” Phair said. “He’s really good with his hands and he does a great job with his hands. He just has a really natural feel in how to rush. To me, that just jumped off the tape from last year in the snaps I saw him. Then when you see him in person, you see that he’s got a natural feel for how to rush.
“When you watch him run, he’s quick. He’s got a lot of quick twitch to him. He can run. He’s a good athlete. He’s a natural with good hand-eye coordination. He just moves very, very easy.”
But it took time for those raw skills to translate on the field.
In an ideal world, Smoot would’ve redshirted his first year at Illinois, Illini interim coach Bill Cubit said. But the Illini had little depth and needed Smoot (who then weighed about 240 pounds) in the rotation. Smoot played seven games and registered eight tackles, including a sack in the season finale against Northwestern.
After bulking up to 270 pounds, Smoot played a major role as a sophomore but flashes of brilliance were too infrequent. He finished the season with 33 tackles, 7.5 TFLs and 2.5 sacks.
“I had pressure on myself just to go out there and actually make plays,” Smoot said of his sophomore campaign. “I feel like the more and more you think about it, it kind of makes you play slow because you’re thinking about, ‘OK, I have to make this play or do this or do that.’ You have a lot of things in your head and your playing slow. This year, I feel like I’m playing faster.”
Smoot has never looked so comfortable making offensive linemen look so uncomfortable.
Smoot is the premier pass rusher the Illini defense so sorely needed to take a step forward -- which it has, ranking eighth in the Big Ten in scoring defense and total defense, up from 14th (last) in both categories last season.
Individually, Smoot has turned himself into one of the Big Ten’s best disruptors, registering a combined 7.5 tackles for loss and 4.0 sacks over the last three games against Middle Tennessee, Nebraska and Iowa.
“He's explosive," said Illini senior defensive end Jihad Ward. "He’s just ready to go. He’s just tired of the negativity. He told me that he believes we can do this. That dude is a great kid on and off the field. He’s amazing to me what he’s doing right now. I’m really proud of him.”
Said Phair: “He’s just been playing really fast. He’s going out and playing fast and getting off the ball, so he’s doing a nice job there. We need that. We need to keep having that.”
How much of that is Phair’s influence?
“One hundred percent,” Smoot said. “That’s one thing he said when he first got in here. That’s the first thing you have to do, just get off the ball as fast as you can.”
During the past 18 years, only two Illini have registered more than 6.0 sacks in a season: Will Davis (2007) and Whitney Mercilus (2011). Both were drafted (Davis in the 6th round of the 2009 NFL Draft, Mercilus in the 1st round of the 2012 NFL Draft), and Smoot's production is putting him on NFL radars.
More importantly, those big seasons from Davis and Mercilus led the Illini to bowl games (Rose in 2007 and Kraft Fight Hunger in 2011).
Smoot's continued productive use of his size and track speed would help the Illini hurdle a season of unprecedented adversity. Smoot would love to cross the regular-season finish line by proving more doubters wrong with a bigger bowl bid.
“It’s really important to him,” Phair said. “He takes this really serious. He wants to be really, really good. You see the quiet demeanor, and that is him. He’s a very serious guy in that he wants to be really good.”