Perhaps a dozen different NFL scouts have made the long trek to Rantoul, Ill. this week, and the majority of their eyes were directed at one man in particular: senior strong side defensive end Jihad Ward, who will now spend the first two weeks of the 2015 season on the bench due to an undisclosed injury (rumors are that it's a knee issue) and subsequent surgery.
Ward is a six-foot-six, nearly 300-pound monster on the line, who came into his own toward the tail end of the 2014 season (his first in the Big Ten after transferring from a junior college). He specializes in taking on double teams and destroying running plays in the backfield. Ward has the physical tools to be an elite pass rusher, but hasn't quite put it together yet in that respect.
Perhaps the primary cause of this is the scheme of the Illinois defense, in which the strong side defensive end position is relied upon more heavily to stop the run than sack the quarterback. Typically, pass rushing specialists play LEO for the Illini; the hybrid linebacker/defensive end position on the side opposite Ward.
Ward was expected to be the vocal and statistical leader of a heavily scrutinized defensive line, which has ceded a vast number of rushing yards over the past three years. Without a doubt, the line has been the devastating weakness of an Illini defense that has done little except hold back offensive coordinator Bill Cubit's success on the other side of the ball.
Such drastic futility in matching up with the run heavy offenses of the Big Ten West division, and the behemoth offensive linemen who flood the division, led head coach Tim Beckman to hire former NFL defensive line coach Mike Phair in the hopes that he could jump-start a line laced with veterans in 2015.
Unfortunately for Beckman and Phair, the depth chart at defensive end now looks nothing like it did as recently as the start of summer practices a week ago. The expected strong side defensive ends were Ward in the starter's role, joined by experienced senior Kenny Nelson and talented sophomore Paul James III as the second and third strings, respectively.
In just one week, Nelson suffered an injury that has sidelined him in Camp Rantoul thus far and James III left the team and school because of disciplinary issues. Nelson wears a green, "limited contact" jersey in practice, signaling an imminent return before the end of camp, but the depth of the line has been completely eliminated in a short period of time. Only walk-ons remain.
Beckman will have to act fast to shore up the line, and he's already been preparing for Ward's absence over the last couple days. Starting LEO Dawuane Smoot has shifted over to the strong side for reps at defensive end. Smoot isn't a huge run stopper like Ward, but he's certainly a better option than walk-ons until Nelson and Ward are fully healthy.
Smoot is likely better at the position than even a fully healthy Nelson, but Nelson should be a solid back-up. Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Tito Odenigbo, who should take over the inside of the line in a couple years, has also taken a few reps at defensive end in lieu of recent events.
As frustrating as it is to lose Ward for a couple games, the silver lining is just that: Ward should only miss two games due to his injury, and it could've been a lot worse (see: Dre Brown, Mike Dudek, Wes Lunt last season). This will allow Smoot an opportunity to get some experience at defensive end, where he'll likely start in 2016 after an offseason spent bulking up.
Illinois should be able to handle the offensive lines of Kent State and Western Illinois even without the presence of Ward, but they'll need his body for the game at North Carolina. More importantly, they'll need him in his peak Godzilla form for season-defining games against Nebraska and Iowa.
If there are residual effects from Ward's injury, such as him not being in game shape for the conference schedule, then what was perhaps the most improved unit on the team entering camp could end up spinning its wheels yet again against the massive offensive lines of the Big Ten West.