courtesy Illinois athletics

Position Primer: Illini Defensive Line

Illini Inquirer previews the 2016 defensive line and burning questions about the position group

Illini Inquirer is breaking down one Illini football position group per day, leading up to the start of  Illinois training camp on Thursday, Aug. 4.

July 27 - Illini quarterbacks

July 28 - Illini running backs

July 29 - Illini wide receivers

July 30 - Illini tight ends

July 31 - Illini offensive line

Today - Illini defensive line


Year: Senior

Stats: 40 tackles, 15.0 tackles for loss, 8.0 sacks last season

Analysis: The Illini haven't had as hyped an NFL Draft prospect entering the season since Corey Liuget in 2010 (remember Whitney Mercilus was a big surprise). Dawuane Smoot's breakout junior campaign put him on the map, and he has actually drawn some comparisons to Mercilus. Pass rushers with his combination of strength and speed are hard to find. Even more impressive, most of his production last season came against Big Ten competition. The film loves him (watch the Iowa or Ohio State film) and the metrics love him. According to Pro Football Focus, Smoot had 49 total pressures over the last seven games -- including 11 pressures against Ohio State and eight against Iowa -- compared to 11 over the first first five games. According to PFF, he had the fourth highest pass rush productivity among 4-3 defensive ends and first among returning members of that group. Smoot is a game-changing defensive player who will draw a lot more attention this season, but that attention could open up opportunities for the rest of the Illini to make plays.

Year: Senior

Stats: 35 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, 0.5 sacks last season

Analysis: If any defensive lineman best fits Lovie Smith's scheme, it's Jarrod "Chunky" Clements. The senior defensive tackle fits the mold of what Smith traditionally wants in his three-technique. Clements has strength and, more importantly, a quick burst off the line of scrimmage. Some schemes ask defensive tackles to occupy multiple gaps to free others to make plays. In Lovie's scheme, Clements will be asked to control and penetrate one gap and simply disrupt the backfield. Clements didn't register many sacks last season, but he was disruptive (11.5 tackles for loss ranked second among UI defensive linemen behind Smoot). Clements must show a bit more consistency, but he has all the tools to be an NFL player. With Smoot drawing so much attention, Clements should have plenty of opportunity.

Year: Redshirt senior

Stats: 36 tackles, 6.0 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks, three blocked kicks

Analysis: Rob Bain looks like a different man. During the offseason, his former bald-headed, Bane (the Batman villain) look-a-like has grown long, thick, dark locks. Bain also has trimmed about 10-15 pounds of body fat. The new Illini staff wants the former nose tackle quicker and more athletic. The good news is that Bain hasn't lost any of the brute strength that has made him a weight-room legend at Illinois. Bain hasn't made many spectacular plays at Illinois, but he's the hard-nosed, consistent presence up front that most teams need. It will be interesting to see how he plays at a leaner weight.

Year: Redshirt senior

Stats: 26 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks last season

Analysis: Due to his pass-rush potential, Carroll Phillips earned three starts over the team's last four games. He flashed his potential with 2.0 sacks against Wisconsin and multiple disruptive plays against Ohio State and Purdue. Phillips is one of the quickest and most athletic Illini defenders, he had a strong spring and he has the potential to be a breakout pass rusher opposite Smoot. But is he more than a one-trick pony and can he stand up against Big Ten rushing offenses?


Year: Senior

Stats: 45 tackles, 7.0 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks during three seasons at Auburn

Analysis: Losing linebacker T.J Neal to Auburn was a tough loss for Illinois, but the Illini may have won the Auburn "trade" -- especially after landing Hardy Nickerson to fill Neal's spot. Auburn fifth-year transfer Gimel President provides the Illini with much-needed and invaluable depth on the defensive line. President isn't a premier player, but he was a productive one in the SEC (10 starts). He's strongest against the run, which complements Phillips. He also can slide inside on passing downs and provide more quickness in the middle.

Year: Redshirt freshman

Analysis: Jamal Milan may have been the surprise of training camp last season. The freshman burst onto the scene, displaying a combination of strength, quickness and confidence rarely seen by true freshmen defensive lineman. Following an injury to Teko Powell and suspension of Joe Fotu, Milan had earned the third spot in the defensive tackle rotation. But a knee sprain during the first week of the season sidelined him the rest of the season and he received a medical redshirt. As long as he bounces back from the injury -- he sat out a big portion of spring ball -- that sit-out year could be best for him and the Illini. Milan has more potential than any of the Illini underclassmen and could be the foundation of the future front four.

Year: Redshirt sophomore

Stats: Three tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss last season

Analysis: Tito Odenigbo received a lot of first-team reps this fall due to minor injuries to Bain and Milan. That experience could prove to be valuable for a player who will be a big piece on the Illini defensive line during the next three seasons. Odenigbo doesn't seem elite at any trait yet, but he looks like he will be a solid rotational defensive tackle this season and a solid starter as an upperclassman.

Year: Redshirt sophomore

Stats: Seven tackles, 2.0 tackles for loss

Analysis: Former linebacker Henry McGrew carved out a nice niche as a run-stuffing defensive end last season. The Illini used him mostly against read-option and run-heavy offenses last season. McGrew must improve his pass rushing because the Illini may rely on him a lot as a junior.

Year: Redshirt sophomore

Analysis: Former JUCO transfer Sean Adesanya sat out last season and most of the spring due to a shoulder injury. The previous staff was excited about Adesanya's raw ability, especially his burst and athleticism. But he's barely received any practice reps. Once he gets healthy, this season is more about personal development than team impact. With such a thin group up front in 2017, the Illini need Adesanya to make some big strides.

Year: True freshman

Analysis: Despite his lack of height (Jackson is shorter than his listed height of 6-foot), Kenyon Jackson has received quality initial reviews. The stocky defensive tackle is the strongest freshman in the weight room and has great athleticism for a guy with his mass (no surprise, given his dad is former NFL tight end Keith Jackson). The Illini hope he can become their version of Minnesota defensive tackle Steven Richardson, the undersized Minnesota defensive tackle who has become of the best interior players in the Big Ten despite his lack of height.

Year: True freshman

Analysis: Tymir Oliver has a Big Ten frame. The question is: for what position? Oliver would seem to be a better fit at defensive tackle because he doesn't have the greatest lateral quickness or change of direction. But he does have some explosion off the ball and the frame to add 20 pounds of strength. The Illini also could try to lean him down a bit and see if he can play defensive end, a bigger need the next few seasons. Regardless, he will likely take a redshirt year to focus on developing into whatever the Illini want him to be.

Year: True freshman

Analysis: The last Illini staff rolled the dice a bit with Brandon Jones, who committed days after Tim Beckman was fired. His only other offer at the time was from Southeast Missouri. Jones has a long frame and good straight-line speed. But he is raw as a football player and needs to add about 20-25 pounds of strength. He is a long-term project for defensive line coach Mike Phair, but at least an intriguing one.

Burning questions

1. How good can this group be?

Phil Steele ranks the Illini eighth among defensive lines in the Big Ten. BTN's Tom Dienhart ranks the Illini sixth among West Division defensive lines (which would be 11th to 13th in the Big Ten overall). I'll side with Steele on this one. Despite the loss of Oakland Raiders second-round draft pick Jihad Ward, the Illini have a middle-of-the-pack defensive line unit (like last season). Under Mike Phair, this group made a huge improvement over 2013 and 2014 -- when the Illini had by far the worst front four in the Big Ten -- and found a disruptive, quick-burst identity that Phair sums up with his group nickname "Rush Men." The Illini don't quite have the talent of Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State. But they may have the Big Ten's best pass rusher (Smoot), another NFL prospect (Clements) and three other capable seniors (Bain, Phillips and President). Milan and Odenigbo also should be solid to good contributors. This is a pretty deep group right now with some higher-end talent. It is the main source of optimism for Illinois in 2016. The defensive line should help an improved linebacker group and an inexperienced secondary. The Illini need a strong defense to help support an offense with major depth questions. It all starts up front.

2. How bad will next year's group be?

Enjoy this defensive line depth while the Illini have it. The top-five defensive linemen graduate after this season. Milan and Odenigbo should be solid starters in the middle, and early reviews on Jackson are positive. But the Illini are really weak on the edge, where McGrew, Adesanya and unproven freshmen will compete for time in 2017. The Illini are selling 2017 edge recruits -- like Miami Central's Owen Carney -- that they can play right away, and they aren't lying. The depth chart is that scary in 2017. Why? Well, the previous Illini staff struggled to land defensive line recruits and took too many chances on JUCO products -- they signed one prep DL prospect in both the 2014 and 2015 classes -- and most of those JUCOs didn't provide much (outside of Ward). Due to a terrible first season and pressure to win immediately, the past staff was continually chasing quick fixes as opposed to developing long-term depth and stability up front. The new staff will need a few years to fix the past problems -- and likely will suffer some short-term losses on the field because of it.

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