The Orange and Blue Spring Game is six Saturdays away and I'm previewing every position group before we get there. Last week I discussed the importance of Wes Lunt and the quarterback position. This week, I thought I'd cover the opposite side of the ball with the defensive line.
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For most Fighting Illini fans, the words "opponent average yards per rush" are fear. For the past two years Illinois has ranked in the bottom twenty percent nationally as they allowed over five yards each time the ball was handed off. But 2015 looks different. Recruiting, player growth, and a new coaching hire indicate that something new is on the horizon.
After the Heart of Dallas Bowl, Tim Beckman fired D-line coach Greg Colby in the hope to find a solution for the chronic ailment. His replacement is Mike Phair, the D-line coach from last year's Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Chicago Bears from 2011 to 2013. Not only is he the directing linemen, he's now labeled as the co-defensive coordinator along with Tim Banks, the man who has held the solo defensive coordinator title for the past two years.
Tampa Bay was a top 10 run defense last year which makes Phair look like an upgrade over Colby in terms of coaching. But college football is a different game; coaches also need to be able to recruit. One of the main problems with the hire is that Phair doesn't have any prior experience with talking to potential players. This may or may not be a problem, but who knows? Maybe he's got some hidden talent for being affable with young people? Like the Pied Piper of D-Linemen. That's something we'll have to return to after a year or two -- right now, he has to coach the recruits in the program.
What he has to work with is likely the best defensive line units at Illinois since 2011 which featured three NFL draft picks (Whitney Mercilus, Akeem Spence, Michael Buchanan). Hold up, I realize that the last sentence might have brought too much hope into the room. I need to cool things down before the expectations get out of hand. When I say "best", I don't mean anywhere near as good as that 2011 line was. They were awesome -- this 2015 line is just better than all those since. There's still a sizable margin in between.
That being said... Jihad Ward. He's a 6-foot-6, 295-pound Monstar who's still growing to fit his athletic frame. He went from a JUCO who hadn't played much at the defensive end position to one of the best players on the defense in less than a year. He's the returning leader in sacks (three) and now he's a senior with even more muscle and experience. By my estimation, Ward has either the first or second highest chance of being drafted from this team in 2016 (the other would be OG Ted Karras). Every opponent will start their offensive gameplan by trying to slow Ward down, and that might be tricky because he has enough talent that he can just as easily play at defensive tackle, which opens up defensive end for Kenny Nelson and Paul James.
Nelson and James, which sounds like a law firm, are two guys I'm really looking forward to watching during the Spring Game. When a player reaches his senior year, he's always better than all the previous versions of himself -- that's Nelson. If Ward can sometimes rotate into a DT, he and Nelson will be an powerful combo on the strong side of the line. After Ward and Nelson leave this season, James will be the main guy for 2016 and 2017. I've heard nothing but praise for his football talents and I'm a complete sucker for potential.* The Illini defense rotates players quite often, making the actual depth chart look more like a guidelines than a rule. This will give James a chance to play more this season than he would in a normal system. He is the future of the DE position and likely an interesting twist this season.
(* -- Honestly, potential is probably why I'm an Illini fan anyways -- they've always looked like a potentially awesome B1G team being close to Chicago and all. One of these years they're going to put it all together and be great, right?)
Now, if you'll look just down the line at the defensive tackle positions, you'll see one of the few true starting competitions on display. Ostensibly, there are four players who could find their way into the starting two spots. Teko Powell is a senior who seemingly has more of an advantage than any other candidate, but he's still dealing with a lingering foot injury that kept him out for most of 2014. Then, it seems, are the juniors Rob Bain and Jarrod "Chunky" Clements for the next spot. Both played in all thirteen games last year and they're similar in size (Bain has an extra 15 pounds, both are 6-foot-3), so it appears that their race will be decided by the Spring Game and Rantoul in the summer. Then in what I perceive as last place is Joe Fotu, a JUCO from last year. He's a senior and senior always have a chance. There's also Tito Odenigbo, but as a redshirt freshmen, he'll likely have to wait a year or two, but I assure you that we'll be relying on him plenty in the coming years. They're all going to get plenty of playing time when the season arrives, but coaches need to know who they can turn to in vital situations.
In terms of the Illini defense, I've covered all of the every-down down linemen, but there's also the LEO position, a hybrid DE/LB position that can play two roles whenever needed -- a bullrusher as a down lineman, a speed/contain guy around the end, a person to cover the flat in pass defense. It is a demanding position and only certain players can even hope to claim it. For 2015, there are two, Carroll Phillips and Dawuane Smoot, a sophomore and a junior, respectively. These two are going to be great together. Just imagine yourself as a tackle for Iowa. You've fought for three straight plays against some skinny, super fast dude and you're tired. Then all of the sudden, appears a much heavier guys with fresh legs. How are you supposed to handle two different players with different styles, roles, and an unfair advantage to tag out when needed? It's a tremendous advantage for Illinois and it's something I'll be watching all spring and in the fall.
We've been waiting for too long for the defensive line to stop running backs, and now that depth and talent has been found, Illinois might stand a chance. This position group is one of the most interesting going into the Spring Game -- there's lots of talent with plenty of opportunity and a position battle. This kind of stuff is the perfect reason to watch a Spring Game.