CHAMPAIGN - Lovie Smith had been on the evaluation side of Pro Days for the past two decades. But on Thursday, the former NFL coach played the role of adviser and cheerleader for his 19 former Illinois football players participating in the Illinois Pro Day at the Irwin Indoor Practice Facility.
"It's been a while," Smith said. "It's exciting. It's the biggest job interview that you'll have in your life. We just want them to perform well. I think everyone performed well, so a good day. A Fighting Illini win today."
Smith, who spent the previous 11 seasons as an NFL head coach (nine in Chicago and two in Tampa), operates his college program much like an NFL team, in part to help prepare his players for the next level.
"We feel like we run a pro system," Smith said. "We're coaching the same way we did on the professional level, and we know a lot of people so it's a little bit of a reunion for us. Our job now, of course, is to give them as much information as possible. That's what we're able to do. A lot of good football minds were here today and got a chance to see our guys perform."
In total, 31 of 32 NFL teams were present with the Los Angeles Rams as the lone holdout. Smith said the Illini staff's vast NFL experience -- assistants Hardy Nickerson, Luke Butkus, Bob Ligashesky, Mike Phair and Andrew Hayes-Stoker all coached in the NFL and Donnie Abraham played in the NFL -- also gives credibility to their discussions with NFL evaluators.
"We have more NFL experience on our staff than probably any college program around," Smith said. "So we should know what it takes to get to the next level. And again, we have some guys they should look at."
Media were not allowed in the workouts and results of the workouts were not made public.
Most eyes though were on the Illini defenders. Pass rushers Dawuane Smoot and Carroll Phillips are expected to go in the middle rounds, and linebacker Hardy Nickerson and defensive tackle Chunky Clements could go late in the draft.
The Illini ended a two-year draft drought last year with the selections of Jihad Ward, Ted Karras and Clayton Fejedelem. Smith said another busy draft weekend (April 27-29) for Illinois will help sell his Illini program.
"Of course, we're recruiting high school players right now," Smith said. "They want to go and have a great college career, but they want to finish in the NFL. This past spring as I went through evaluations right as we had the draft, every player on our team watched the draft. So they want to make that next step. It's a big deal for us today."
Lunt wants 'just a chance'
Wes Lunt knows the Illini's record during his three years at Illinois (14-25) and his numbers (58.2 completion rate, 6.4 yards per pass, 42 touchdowns and 19 interceptions) don't scream "NFL quarterback prospect."
Yet, those numbers don't tell the full story: three different head coaches, three different offensive coordinators, injuries to his top playmakers and little rushing attack to help ease the pressure. But Lunt is trying to use those trials and tribulations as a positive as he pursues a pro career.
"I think every game I played was a learning experience," Lunt said. "Going through adversity, not every quarterback go through that much adversity -- all the head coaches and offensive coordinators -- and still find a positive out of it. I think I found a lot of positives out of it: getting to meet new coaches, new techniques, learning offense and learning new schemes. I think that's really benefited me."
Lunt also was given a lot of responsibility and freedom at the line of scrimmage under both offensive coordinators Bill Cubit and Garrick McGee, which should give him an advantage over quarterbacks who made just simple reads.
"I think it helps a lot," Lunt said. "I just know when the coaches put that trust in you, you not only have that trust but you have to put in extra time in the film room because it's you out there. They can't help you on the field. It's you, and that's just done a great job of preparing me for the next level."
Lunt, who has trained at EXOS in San Diego, participated at the East-West Shrine Game in January, where he completed 11 of 14 passes for a game-high 101 yards. He thinks he made another positive impression on Thursday.
"I think I did pretty well," Lunt said. "I think ran as well as I could. I prepared. I threw only one incomplete. I'm happy with that."
Lunt knows he isn't a potential high draft pick like some had projected early in his career. But he just hopes a team gives him an opportunity to prove that all the adversity he experienced at Illinois could help him thrive at the next level.
"Just a chance, just a chance," Lunt said. "Whether it's the draft or free agent, just a chance to pursue my dreams of playing NFL football and see what happens after that."
Smoot ready to get back to football
Dawuane Smoot couldn't wait for Thursday's Pro Day to end. The Illini defensive end's just tired of being a track athlete and ready to be a football player again.
"I'm excited about it because I don't have to do any more 40s or jumping," Smoot said. "I'm really just in my element now, and I'm excited about it."
Smoot, who also participated at the NFL Combine, said he didn't expect this job interview to be as stressful as it is.
"I expected it to be a lot more fun than it is. It's really just tiring. You're running off two or three hours of sleep everyday, especially at the Combine. A lot of meetings. You have a lot of psychological tests and stuff like that. They really try to get after you when it comes to your mental toughness. That's something I didn't expect."
Smoot came into his senior season as a high-ranking NFL Draft prospect, but has slipped in some rankings. He still appears a surefire draft pick, but some now view him more as a middle-round pick than the potential first-rounder most projected during the preseason.
But he still has high hopes.
"I have some expectations," Smoot said. "I'm hoping that I'm able to go in the round that I thought I was going to go. If everything goes well, I'm happy."
Is that the first round?
"Yeah, definitely" Smoot said. "That's my goal."
- Smoot said he stood mostly by his NFL Combine numbers. But he was unable to bench press during the NFL Combine due to a pectoral injury. He healed and put up 21 reps of 225 pounds on Thursday, the same number of reps as first-round defensive line prospects Jonathan Allen (Alabama) and Charles Harris (Missouri). He said he struggled in the vertical jump and will stick by his 29-inch jump at the Combine.
- Smoot, Carroll Phillips and Gimel President all went through defensive end and linebacker drills. Smoot said teams are split on whether he will play 4-3 defensive end or 3-4 outside linebacker. Phillips is expected to play 3-4 outside linebacker.
- The talk of the workout was Justin Hardee's 40-yard dash time. Everyone already knew Hardee is fast, but his consensus time of 4.35 raised some eyebrows. Some scouts had him the 4.2s. However, Hardee -- who accumulated 72 career receptions for 841 yards during his four seasons -- struggled to consistently get open and catch the ball during his career. He's not on most NFL radars.
- Everyone knows Rob Bain is a beast, but on Thursday he attached a number to his strength. The defensive tackle repped 225 pounds on the bench press 41 times on Thursday. That would've been the highest total at the NFL Combine -- by six reps.
- The most recognizable person in attendance on Thursday: Pro Football Hall of Famer Kevin Greene, now the New York Jets outside linebackers coach.