Lovie Smith's defensive chops will be tested in second season at Illinois
Before we even begin, get the images of a double-bacon cheeseburger and a perfectly seasoned bag of French fries out of your head. This isn’t the burger joint we’re talking about.
No, five guys – the other five guys – made up Illinois’ defensive line in 2016. It was anchored by Carroll Phillips and Dawuane Smoot, two of the best pass-rushers in the B1G. And in the middle, Rob Bain and Chunky Clements held their ground as well. And then there was Gimel President, a great rotational player at defensive end.
It’s also the number of new defensive linemen Lovie Smith is going to have to find as he begins his second year in Champaign. And in a way, that might be a good thing for the Illini.
The five seniors accounted for some pretty impressive stats last fall. They were responsible for 60 of the team’s 95 tackles for loss and 23 sacks. Phillips and Smoot were frequently referred to as NFL-caliber talent for their abilities to bull rush the offensive line and force the quarterback out of the pocket.
Yet those numbers and praise didn’t translate to wins. Instead, the Illini had one of the worst defenses in the B1G, ranking 12th in rush defense, 11th in total defense and 12th in points allowed per game.
Pretty easy to see how Smith’s team finished the year with just three wins.
With those five on the way out, and a full offseason ahead, Smith now has the opportunity to plunge head first into the pool of Illinois problems. And it’s an important offseason to do it.
Illinois is shifting from a senior-heavy defense and will go through a bit of a youth movement. So Smith isn’t just developing talent for the upcoming season, he’s doing it for the next two-to-three years, at least.
The favorites to take over on the defensive line for Illinois in 2017 were all underclassmen last season. Jamal Milan and Kenyon Jackson – likely the two favorites to headline the front four next fall – are entering their sophomore seasons. And Tito Odenigbo – brother to Northwestern’s Ifaedi – will be a junior.
Combined, the three tallied 60 tackles for the Illini.
And then there’s Owen Carney, a three-star defensive end from Miami. With those spots seemingly up in the air, he’s expected to have an immediate impact. The 29th-ranked weak-side pass-rusher has already enrolled, giving him a full offseason before the year begins, as well.
There’s other voids that will need to be filled, too.
Linebacker Hardy Nickerson, Jr. is leaving big shoes to fill after leading the team with 107 tackles and a pair of interceptions. And the loss of Darius Mosely is a significant blow at cornerback, too.
Smith has his work cut out for him, for sure. But he now has something he didn’t at this point last year.
In a way, Smith inherited a pretty good situation last year. With five seniors on the defensive line – and two others starting – he could focus on implementing his schemes and providing guys with plenty of repetition while learning a new system. It was kind of a “let’s see what we’ve got,” attitude.
Though it didn’t pay off immediately, Smith now knows he can’t rely on that mentality.
Smith has been praised as a defensive guru and the expectation is that he’ll fix Illinois’ ongoing woes on that side of the football. Considering the abrupt decision-making that brought him to Champaign, Smith gets a pass in his first season.
Illinois’ defense is now fully in the hands of Smith and he’s going to be tested.
Developing a group of young, inexperienced guys isn’t an easy chore, but it’s something he must do. And if he does it well, Smith could be building a new identity for the Illini defense.