CHAMPAIGN - The Illinois defensive line has set pretty high goals for 2016.
"Our goals are to get four or five sacks a game, six TFLs (tackles for loss)," Phillips said.
For some context, Alabama led the country last season with 3.8 sacks per game. The Illini averaged 7.4 tackles for loss per game last season (16th in the country) under the tutelage of defensive line coach Mike Phair, whom head coach Lovie Smith retained.
But the Illini defensive linemen are shooting higher.
"That's what the coaches projected us to do, but we feel that's a little too small for us," Phillips said. "We're going to try to go bigger than that and overachieve that goal."
Is that possible? The early returns say: sure.
The Illinois defensive line -- and the defense -- has dominated most of the action through the first two days of Training Camp on the practice fields to the east of Memorial Stadium.
Of course, players have not yet put on their shoulder pads or leg pads. Still, the Illini defensive line looks stronger and deeper than any other position group -- by far.
"(The depth on the defensive line) it's better than other positions we have," Smith said. "It's good to get Rob Bain back out there. Gimel President coming in gives us additional depth. But you can never have too many defensive linemen. And it's not like we only play our starting lineup. We want to play multiple guys and keep fresh guys out there at all times."
Leading the group is possible NFL first-round draft pick Dawuane Smoot, who told Illini Inquirer his goal is to earn All-America honors this season. Smoot is the Big Ten's premier returning pass rusher after a breakout junior season that included 15.0 tackles for loss and 8.0 sacks.
The entire starting front four is made of seniors (so enjoy this group while you can): Smoot, three-technique defensive tackle Jarrod "Chunky" Clements (11.5 TFLs last season), Rob Bain and Phillips. Clements is an NFL prospect, Bain (18 career starts) is the strongest player on the team and Phillips infiltrated the starting lineup late last season as an impact pass rusher. All four seniors have the chance to be playing in NFL training camps at this time next season.
Auburn fifth-year transfer defensive end Gimel President, who started 10 games in the SEC, adds even more depth on the edge. Meanwhile, redshirt freshman Jamal Milan -- who missed most of last season with a knee sprain -- dominated the second-string offensive line on Friday and looks like the future anchor of the group. He is strong, quick and consistently disruptive. Redshirt sophomores Tito Odenigbo and Henry McGrew -- likely starters next season -- also look like reliable rotation players.
The "Rush Men" -- Phair's nickname for the group -- have overwhelmed an Illini offensive line that has three returning starters.
"It's pretty difficult to (block them)," offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said. "The scheme and the talent and the depth. That President kid sacked my quarterback when I was down at Louisville. I was talking to him about that the other day. I think Mike Phair does a great job with them. He brings energy and enthusiasm himself, and I think they feed off that. That's what gets them to play so hard."
Smith's defense counts on penetration and disruption front the front four to allow the back seven -- Illinois is replacing six starters in the back seven -- more opportunities at takeaways, Smith's main desire.
"The defense is looking great," Phillips said. "We're coming off the ball, making plays, sacking the quarterback, making TFLs in the backfield.
"The defensive line is very confident. We know we're the engine of this whole defense, getting us started and getting us going. We're in the Lovie Smith program. This Tampa-2 defense is going to be tremendous for us."
Smith must accomplish a lot on the recruiting trail to coach a front four that looks as good as this one in the next two or three years. But it's not ridiculous to think that the Illinois defensive line could approach the lofty goals they're tossing around.
"I think you kind of limit it a little bit when you put numbers on it," Smith said. "We want everybody to have a career year. That's pretty much what I'm telling them. We'll see what that can be. Maybe it's some unbelievable numbers some of the players will put up if given that opportunity. A lot has to fall in place a little bit. It's just not judging them on sacks. Overall play is what we're kind of looking for. Being disciplined in your gap. Playing hard every down."
- Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman said last week that he expects to announce some facility improvement plans soon. Well, football recruits are currently being told there will be a nine-figure new football facility built -- where the current horseshoe in the south end zone is situated -- by 2019. The plan isn't all that newsworthy because former Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas made initial plans for the facility, which will include a football-only weight room, state-of-the-art staff offices, a program Hall of Fame and more. But the projected date and certainty of the project -- especially following Whitman's comments -- is newsworthy.
- Redshirt freshman quarterback Jimmy Fitzgerald missed the first two practices "due to personal reasons," Smith said. Chayce Crouch and Jeff George Jr. split reps among the second- and third-string offenses. Smith declined to say when Fitzgerald will return to practice.
- Some Illinois football players missed parts or all of the first two days of practice due to class conflicts. The second summer session of classes has wrapped up, but finals go through the weekend. The football team will be without class until Aug. 22, the first day of the fall semester.
- Smith individually coaches the nickel backs, an extra defensive back who replaces a linebacker in subpackages. Redshirt sophomore Chris James and senior Dillan Cazley currently are splitting time with the first string at the position. "Two guys with talent who haven't played a lot," Smith said. "But they've been able to do some things since the spring. Chris James in the spring had about as many interceptions as anyone. He ended up being a playmaker for us. And Cazley has a good ability: strong, fast, quick. But neither guy has played an awful lot. We'll see how that plays out."
- Illinois offensive coordinator Garrick McGee will employ a fullback at times. Who will fill that position? Walk-on Nate Echard. The Eureka, Mo., native played linebacker his first two seasons but moved to H-Back last year, where he caught four passes for four yards. Another former linebacker Austin Roberts is transitioning to the position. "They're both doing a really good job," McGee said. "They're really a good pleasant surprise. Nate has played the position before. Nate is a really smart, sharp kid. I didn't know until last night. Wes (Lunt) told me he was a really good receiver in high school. I didn't believe it. I had to go back and watch some of his high school video. They're just really smart kids. They bring another element to the offense, which is going to be a blessing to us."
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