Jeremy Werner // Illini Inquirer

Illini senior James Crawford 'definitely comfortable' with move to defensive end

Formerly a safety and linebacker, senior James Crawford is settling in as a potentially dangerous pass rusher for Illinois

The previous Illinois staff recruited James Crawford as a safety. The Deerfield, Fla., native in 2015 then switched to the STAR position, a hybrid linebacker/safety role. He then transitioned to weakside linebacker last season under Lovie Smith.

This spring, Crawford continues his evolution. The 6-foot-2 senior now is lining up with his hand on the ground as the first string right defensive end after getting a few in-game reps as a pass-rush specialist late last season.

Crawford has now played at every level of the defense. That can be taken as a negative (struggling to find a home) or a positive (it takes a heck of an athlete to have that type of versatility).

Crawford's thoughts on playing defensive end?

"In one word: fun," Crawford said.

Illinois lost two All-Big Ten defensive ends this offseason -- Dawuane Smoot and Carroll Phillips are both expected to go in the first few rounds of the NFL Draft -- and its top reserve (Gimel President). With so few defensive ends with Big Ten experience (junior Henry McGrew has played 23 games as a backup and junior Sean Adesanya has yet to play a game in his two seasons at Illinois due to injuries), the Illini are getting creative to bridge the gap before the six incoming freshmen defensive ends are really prepared to be Big Ten contributors.

Crawford has impressed Illini head coach Lovie Smith.

"I think he's going to be a legitimate outside right end," Smith said. "Excellent speed, quickness. Whenever you're a linebacker, you have that type of ability. But some guys can naturally rush the passer, and he can. Very excited about what he's going to do for us this year." Crawford said he is "definitely comfortable" at defensive end now but is focused on developing more pass rush moves. He also wants to add more strength this offseason so he can hold up against a run-heavy Big Ten West division.

Last season, Crawford started the first three games as a 215-pound weakside linebacker but struggled against the run and lost his starting job. Crawford has since added 20 pounds with a goal of adding five more to get to 240 pounds before the 2017 season kicks off.

Though the concern is that he will struggled hold up against the run, Crawford shined during Saturday's spring scrimmage as a pass rusher. His burst off the ball and ability to dip low and keep his balance and speed are tough to handle for tall, 300-pound offensive linemen.

"If it's a pass, I got the upside," Crawford said. "If it's run, they got the upside because they're way heavier than I am. I just got to fight in there to keep staying strong. I probably got to figure out more keys to tell when it's a run play, down and distance and stuff or simple things like the stance of the offensive linemen. Simple things give away what they're about to do."

Crawford said his job at defensive end is a lot simpler than when he was a linebacker or safety.

"A lot less thinking," Crawford said. "And you get to go full speed every time and that's what I love to do. I was blessed with speed. Now, I get to use it every play.

"For the main part, the first thing I'm thinking is pass rush. Then I just react to everything else. I have pretty good reaction, so it's not too hard."

Few Illini -- if any -- have played all three levels of the defense. Crawford thinks he may have found his most natural fit -- and the spot where he can make the biggest impact.

"I just say that I'm blessed," Crawford said. "To actually play at every level and start in a game at every level in the Big Ten, I'm pretty blessed to be able to do so with this coaching staff who knows that that's where people should be playing. For them to actually have confidence in me to start me at defensive end says a lot."

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