Rahkeem Smith loves football, and he doesn't care where he plays. Too large for linebacker, he played fullback last season. But as he explains, a change in offensive coordinators after the 2008 season made him consider another position switch.
"Actually, it was after Coach (Mike) Locksley left. We decided on the two tight end thing. So it was either be a fullback that was seldom used or, Coach Disch called me and said, 'We can use you at d-line.' As long as I'm on the field and get a chance, I like it. It doesn't matter where I play."
This isn't his first time on the defensive line.
"I played defensive line my junior year in high school at end. I had a lot of sacks. It was kind of fun. I am a quick learner, and mentally this is the easiest position I've ever played. It's real physically tough though."
Smith played last year at around 250 pounds. He now looks like a defensive tackle. Gaining so much good weight was not a problem for this workout warrior.
"No, it wasn't too hard. Lifting heavier weights, and a little bit more. I'm 293 now. I feel pretty good with the weight. On real hot days, I get a little winded."
The Willowbrook product is quick for his size. In the spring, he had several sacks by speeding past unsuspecting offensive linemen. He loves to go full speed, but he claims several Illinois linemen are quick.
"We've got a lot of quick guys. Pretty much everyone on our d-line is athletes. You've got Doug Pilcher, you've got JB (Josh Brent). Corey Liuget is just a straight athlete. Antonio James and Clay Nurse are athletes, so I might be quicker, but barely. We've got a bunch of athletes."
The biggest problem for Smith is learning all the techniques required to fend off offensive linemen and make plays.
"I think mentally I have everything down. Coach (Gilbert) says I sometimes get lazy with my hands. Playing d-line is all about your first step and your hands. If you can shock a person with your hands, you won't have to battle so much. Then it's pretty much hustle and heart. We work with hand stuff every day. It's real important."
Smith is more comfortable talking about team than self. He is excited about the 2009 Illini defense.
"I feel like we've got a lot of work to do, but with the young guys and the athletes we've got, everyone's willing to work hard to get better and stay better. I'm excited because the guys are willing to do whatever it takes to get as good as we can get. No one's holding us back but us. If we can all come together, I feel like we can have a great defense.
"We get real excited to go out there every day because, especially on defense, we've got a lot to prove. We've got a lot of young no-name guys that people don't really know about. What you don't know can hurt you the most. We're under the radar and haven't done anything yet, but we're willing to work at it. The hustle and everything we see at practice, the work ethic is really good."