Under the guidance of defensive line coach Mike Phair in 2015, Dawuane Smoot broke out as a Big Ten star -- and a premier NFL prospect. As a junior that season, he set career highs with 40 tackles, 15.0 tackles for loss, 8.0 sacks and three forced fumbles, earning him All-Big Ten honorable mention honors.
Fast forward to 2016, opposing teams were well aware of his skill set and game-planned away from him. Most ran the ball to the opposite side, used double teams to slow him down and had their quarterbacks throw quicker passes to avoid pressure.
Even with more attention, Smoot gained Third Team All-Big Ten honors with 56 tackles, 15.0 TFLs, 5.0 sacks and two forced fumbles, putting him in position as a Hendricks Award Finalist (given to the nation's best defensive end) with fellow teammate DE Carroll Phillips.
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1729093-young-carroll-philli... Smoot's ability to reset the line of scrimmage versus the run, hand usage against the pass and flexibility to play defensive tackle in pass-rush situations should help him secure a lofty spot in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Here are some highlights that show why he's such a high-regarded prospect and why he earned an invitation to this week's Senior Bowl.
Northwestern is a spread team that runs the ball out of 11/Diamond personnel (1RB-1TE-3WR) with a zone scheme. With Smoot aligned as the left DE, the Wildcats wanted to establish the inside zone run to their right. Smoot's initial reaction at the snap of the ball enabled him to work across the line of scrimmage and set the edge. He displayed a very good strike, play strength and shed with inside hand placement into the breast plate of right tackle Tommy Doles. Smoot finished the play by tackling running back Justin Jackson for less than three yards.
When studying defensive ends, NFL Scouts look for up=field burst against both the run and pass. However, the first three steps at the snap of the ball in pass rush situations that stand out when evaluating prospects. For example, Smoot's third step, allowed him to work half of Michigan State right tackle Miguel Machado. With Machado's shoulders turned, his pass protection suffered, making it easy for Smoot to rip through the punch and sack QB Tyler O'Connor.
Position versatility will add to Smoot's draft status.The NFL is a passing league and defenses are forced to use more pass rushers. It's not uncommon to see defensive coordinators in college or the NFL use three or four DEs to put pressure on the QB. Smoot displayed some DT flex by aligning as the three technique outside of the offensive guard. It's a mismatch for most guards to pass protect against a more athletic DE. Phair used Smoot to push the pocket from the interior and make room for DE Gimel President.
Smoot immediately put pressure on RG J.B. Butler with an explosive get off while leveraging the B-Gap.(gap between guard and tackle). The combination of coverage downfield and the interior push moved QB Clayton Thorson off the launch point. Smoot redirected off the block of Butler with active hand combat to get off of Butler and sack Thorson.
Lastly, Smoot has the foot speed to execute line stunts and pass rush games. Defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson used line stunts for additional ways to penetrate the OL and take advantage of the DL quickness to create confusion. On this particular play against Minnesota, the DL slanted right. Smoot showed the agility to cross the face of RT Garrison Wright on the line of scrimmage and redirect up field with good pursuit sacking QB Mitch Leidner.
Smoot already has impressed this week and the Senior Bowl, and NFL combine will also provide great opportunity for Smoot to improve his draft stock. He can answer any questions about his skill set by competing against some of the best college athletes in the country.
Micheal Young is the football analyst for IlliniInquirer.com. Young was a four-year starter for Illinois football and a team captain. The St. Louis native also played for the NFL's Arizona Cardinals from 2001-04. He serves as a color analyst for several broadcast outlets and co-hosts an Illini podcast with former UI teammate Carey Davis on Huddlepass.com.