CHAMPAIGN - In the middle of a semicircle of about 400 high school football players before an Illinois football camp at Memorial Stadium earlier this month, Lovie Smith began singling out a few of the current Illini players.
Forget for a moment that the new Illini coach -- who still is getting to know his players -- mispronounced Dawuane Smoot's name. Family members call the Illini senior defensive end "D.J." Teammates call him Smoot or "Smooty."
"But when they try to say my first name because of the ‘e’ on the end, everyone says Duh-WAYNE, but it’s actually Duh-WAHN," Smoot said. "I’ve been going through that all my life. If they call me Duh-WAYNE, they call me Duh-WAYNE.”
Anyway, back to the semicircle. Smith singled out Smoot to let those high school players know that they're going to know Smoot's name soon. He wanted them to know that they'll soon see him on their TVs on Sunday.
"Duh-WAYNE is going to be a first-round draft pick next year," Smith told the high school players, who quickly turned their heads to get a quick glimpse of a possible future millionaire.
High praise is rolling in for Smoot. So are high expectations.
“It’s kind of surreal just thinking about it,” Smoot said sitting on a couch in the team's players' lounge this week. “I don’t really know, it hasn’t even hit me yet. All this stuff is coming at me quick."
A smile slowly grows across his face.
"I’m starting to kind of like it," he said.
Following a breakout junior season that included 15.0 tackles for loss and 8.0 sacks, Smoot is now on team posters. He's now on team billboards. The 6-foot-3, 265-pound pass rusher now is the face of Smith's first collegiate defense.
Smoot describes himself as a "chill guy," one who prefers staying in and playing video games rather than going out to party.
But the understated future pro said he's ready for the spotlight.
“I’m ready for the expectations," Smoot said. "I’m ready to meet up for the goals that I’ve set for myself. I’m doing everything I can this offseason to get up to that point when the season comes around.”
With so much uncertainty on the Illinois offense -- no depth at running back, the loss of top receiver Mike Dudek for a second-straight spring, injury concerns at tight end and depth concerns past the top-four offensive linemen -- the Illini need the defense to be good following a big step in the right direction last season.
For the defense to be good -- given inexperience in the secondary -- the defensive line must be good. For the defensive line to be good, Smoot must be great.
What makes Smoot special is his combination of strength and burst. He was a hurdler in high school and that speed translates in pads. Smoot was forced to play too soon as a freshman -- as a stand-up pass rusher in the previous staff's 4-2-5 scheme -- due to the Illini's lack of depth, accruing eight tackles and one sack in seven games. He took strides as a sophomore, totaling 33 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. Like most young players, he flashed promise -- meaning he disappeared at times.
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1681052-watch-joey-boese-bui... But he blossomed last season under the tutelage of defensive line coach Mike Phair and in a 4-3 defense that allowed him to put his hand on the ground. Smoot was the Illini's premier pass rusher in a defense that went from 50th nationally in tackles for loss in 2014 to 16th in 2015 and, more importantly, improved from 109th in scoring defense in 2014 to 37th in 2015.
Even though Phair must replace Oakland Raiders second-round pick Jihad Ward, Illinois feels it has one of the better defensive line groups in the Big Ten, thanks in large part to Smoot. But the group also features another NFL prospect, senior defensive tackle Jarrod 'Chunky' Clements, and a fierce workout warrior, senior defensive tackle Rob Bain.
“(What stands out is) our tenacity," Smoot said. "We get after it every day. We’re working hard. Chunk is a workhorse. Bain, oh my god! This guy is a freak!”
Bain -- profiled last fall by IlliniInquirer.com -- famously looked like Batman villain Bane last year due to his shaved head, but he since has grown a thick black mane.
“He kind of looks like a buff Justin Bieber, honestly," Smoot said. "He’s got a little flow now.”
Also boosting the front four is the emergence of senior pass rusher Carroll Phillips, who broke the starting lineup late last fall and had a strong spring; Auburn fifth-year transfer Gimel President, who adds a veteran all-around presence who can play on the edge or on the interior; and talented redshirt freshman Jamal Milan, who missed last season with a knee sprain after breaking the rotation out of fall camp as a true freshman.
The defensive line also doesn't go through much of a transition with the return of Phair, who learned his philosophy under Smith. Now, Phair is trying to take his front four to the next level by watching some of Smith's past powerful pass rushers.
“We’ve been watching some old-school film from Chicago and stuff," Smoot said. "I’m just excited about it. We’ve been learning a lot. Coach Phair, he’s always been watching the old-school (film). We barely even watch our own film. We watch the pro tapes and stuff. I feel like it helps us a lot.”
Smoot watches one player more than any other.
“Julius Peppers," Smoot said. "He’s been my favorite player since high school. Just his style of play. I really try to copy his moves and stuff. He’s just a freak. I try to do his moves and stuff. I just try to copy his play.”
'Have to step up'
Obviously, Smoot has survived turmoil at Illinois. Tim Beckman gave him the opportunity to play in the Big Ten. Smoot had his biggest season under Bill Cubit.
But Smoot couldn't help but get excited when he heard Smith would be his head coach and, weeks later, that NFL great Hardy Nickerson would be his defensive coordinator.
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1678102-illini-football-recr...“It was like let down (when Cubit was fired), and then it was like excitement right after that," Smoot said. "When we heard the news, it was huge. We were all excited and ready to play for him. It’s been a huge transition. It’s different around here. Kind of like a pro mentality that the coaches have brought. It’s huge.”
Now, Smoot feels he's never had a better environment to succeed.
“They can definitely help me get there," he said. "They’ve been there before. I trust in them.”
Smith has spent a lot of time with his most talented defensive player.
“He’s a great guy," Smoot said. "We talk about two to three times a week about anything honestly. He’s a great guy to talk to and just be around. He doesn’t come in like, ‘I’m a celebrity. I’m higher than everyone.’ He’s real level-headed. He’s a players’ coach. He talks to us. He actually understands what we’re going through. He helps us out a lot.”
Smoot is soft-spoken, but he doesn't set humble goals for his senior season.
“I have to step up," Smoot said. "It has to be huge. My goal for next year is All-American, double-digit sacks and just playing as hard as I can and winning some games as a team.”
If he wants to follow in the footsteps of the last Illini All-American and last Illini first-round pick (Whitney Mercilus in 2012), he has to produce. He's proven he has the talent to do so in the Big Ten. No returning player in the Big Ten had more sacks last season.
Many people -- fans, opponents, NFL teams and recruits -- now know Smoot's name, even if they still struggle to pronounce it, He's aiming this fall to prove enough on the field to make sure millions hear his name called by the NFL commissioner on a Thursday night in April.
“I don’t know what’s in store for me next season, but I know I have to step it up," Smoot said. "Each season you have to step it up. Then seeing the mock drafts and stuff, it just motivates me to do my best and meet those expectations.
“I got to give (Illinois) my all. I got to give them more than my all."