CHAMPAIGN - Dawuane Smoot no longer can be considered underrated or overlooked.
While the previous Illinois staff had high expectations for the defensive end entering last season, Smoot was a surprise for most outside the program last season when he led the Illini with 15.0 tackles for loss and 8.0 sacks.
Now, the secret is out. The Illini senior is one of the fastest rising draft-eligible draft prospects.
Last week, the godfather of NFL draft experts, ESPN's Mel Kiper, placed Smoot at No. 25 on his preseason Big Board.
"Smoot played like a first-round pick with Jihad Ward, who went to the Raiders in the second round, on the other side," Kiper wrote. "I had Ward as the No. 27 player on my final Big Board, but Smoot was more productive in 2015."
Kiper's colleague, Todd McShay, had even higher praise for Smoot, placing the Illini defensive end as his No. 5 prospect.
"A gifted pass-rusher, Smoot keeps offensive tackles on their heels with his ability to win with speed, power and redirection quickness," McShay wrote.
On Wednesday, Bleacher Report draft expert Matt Miller placed Smoot No. 10 overall in his latest mock draft.
"Smoot—6'3", 265 pounds—has ideal edge-rusher athleticism and size," Miller wrote. "Unlike a Randy Gregory or Vic Beasley, he can hold up against NFL offensive tackles with power and speed. Smoot also uses his hands like a pro and is able to be a force on the edge even when he's the sole defensive player opponents are game-planning for."
Smoot is confident in his ability. He told Illini Inquirer during the offseason that "my goal ... is All-American."
But he's still a bit shocked by all the growing attention and hype.
"It's a great honor," Smoot said Wednesday. "It's low-key kind of surreal too, just like seeing all of the media attention I've been able to get. But I'm just focusing on everything I can on the field and keep showing people that I can be that pick in the next draft."
Smoot lived up to the hype in Game One of the season -- even if he only recorded one tackle while four other Illini defensive linemen recorded a sack.
Smoot was dominantly disruptive off the edge. He quickly collapsed the pocket and rushed several KD Humphries throws, forcing several incompletions and one interception (Taylor Barton's first-quarter pick). Officially, he was credited for two quarterback hurries, but anyone who watches film will see he was more valuable than that.
“Dawuane Smoot is a great player," Illini coach Lovie Smith said on Monday. "And we, I expect him to dominate each week. He played a good game this past week. That's not the best game he'll play. There's a high standard for him. We should talk about Dawuane each time we're talking about our team."
To the casual observer, Smoot's mistakes on Saturday may have stood out most. He committed three penalties, including a running into the punter penalty that extended a drive and two offsides penalties.
But Illinois isn't about to try to rein in Smoot's aggression.
“We're not going to try to keep him under control," Smith said. "The more, the better. Any of our players that have that kind of energy that they bring, whether it's between plays or in pregame, but there's a certain type of play we expect during the whistle, during the play. Of course, that's not being offsides and things like that. Knowing how aggressive to be at the right time. But we like as a coaching staff to be in position where we have to pull back a little bit. I haven't been in that position very often.”
Few Illini have been in Smoot's position before.
While Illinois has produced several first-round draft picks over the last two decades -- Whitney Mercilus (26th overall, 2012), A.J. Jenkins (30th overall, 2012), Corey Liuget (18th overall, 2011), Vontae Davis (25th overall, 2009) and Rashard Mendenhall (23rd ovearll, 2008) -- Smoot has the most legitimate chance to be the first Illini to go in the top-10 since Kevin Hardy and Simeon Rice went second and third overall, respectively, in 1996.
“I’m ready for the expectations," Smoot told Illini Inquirer in June. "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.”
It's just one game into that season. But so far, so good ... so, so good.