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2015 Illinois Defensive Line Preview: Jihad Ward ready to climb up NFL Draft boards

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Everything you need to know about the Illinois D-Line in 2015.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Football season is almost here! In just 33 days Illinois will be facing off against Kent State at Memorial Stadium. Over the next few weeks, The Champaign Room will be previewing the 2015 season with position previews, player profiles, biggest storylines, and more. Make sure to check back each day for something new.

First up is our position preview series, where we'll examine the strength and weaknesses of each group on the field. Today we'll be kicking things off by taking a closer look at Jihad Ward and the Fighting Illini defensive linemen.

Position Overview

Returning Starters: Jihad Ward, Jarrod Clements, Teko Powell (injured all of last year), Dawaune Smoot

Key Losses: DeJazz Woods

Other Returners: Kenny Nelson, Rob Bain, Joe Fotu, Tito Odenigbo, Paul James III, Caroll Phillips, Henry McGrew

Newcomers: Jamal Milan, Sean Adesanya

In February, the Illini hired former Tampa Bay Buccaneers assistant Mike Phair to be the program's new co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach. When you combine his coaching knowledge with the talent up front, it's easy to see why we're so excited about the potential of this group.

Led by senior defensive end Jihad Ward, a solid core of experienced veterans will return to cause problems for opposing quarterbacks all season. The supporting cast will be comprised of young, talented options that should have few problems stepping up in the event of an injury.

Key Player

Jihad Ward

Senior defensive end Jihad Ward has the potential to be one of the best defensive lineman in the Big Ten. During his first season with the Illini, Ward was voted the team's Defensive Newcomer of the Year after starting all 13 games. He was also an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention after recording 21 tackles (30 assists), 3.0 sacks, and a conference-leading four fumble recoveries.

Ward has NFL potential written all over him and, if he improved as expected this offseason, his name should be climbing up draft boards all year.

NCAA Football: Heart of Dallas Bowl-Illinois vs Louisiana Tech

Dec 26, 2014; Dallas, TX, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini defensive lineman Jihad Ward (17) rushes the passer in the game against the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs in the Heart of Dallas Bowl at Cotton Bowl Stadium. Louisiana Tech beat Illinois 35-18. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Big Question

Can the defensive line be Illinois' best group in 2015?

In short--yes. This group has a ton of potential and we're very excited to see what they can do under Mike Phair. Jihad Ward showed signs of becoming a monster late last year and he'll only get better with another offseason under his belt. Teko Powell is back from injury to battle up front with fellow junior Jarrod 'Chunky' Clements. At LEO, another guy who forced his way into the rotation because of his performance in 2014 is Dawuane Smoot.

The defensive line also has some great depth. Kenny Nelson was supposed to start last year, but nagging injuries kept him out for most of the season. He'll bring great speed off the edge when Ward isn't on the field. Caroll Phillips is also back from injury and he can be a key piece for this defense on third downs.

If Ward and company can stay relatively healthy this season, they'll be causing havoc for opposing offensive lines all year.

Projected Depth Chart

1st String 2nd String 3rd String
Defensive End Jihad Ward Kenny Nelson Paul James III
Defensive Tackle #1 Teko Powell Joe Fotu Tito Obenigdo
Defensive Tackle #2 Jarrod Clements Rob Bain Jamal Milan
LEO Dawuane Smoot Caroll Phillips Sean Adesanya OR Henry McGrew

Again, the defensive line will be one of Illinois' best and most improved groups throughout 2015. Four starters return, with experienced backups behind them. The upperclassman backups (Nelson, Fotu seniors, Bain, Phillips juniors) will push the 1st string while the younger guys (James, Milan, Obenigdo) get some more time to learn the position. That means, barring injury, things are close to being set for the first two units.

The 3rd stringers are very talented, and will be good in a year or two, so it's possible that the depth chart could shift depending on their camp performance. JUCO transfer Sean Adesanya doesn't have a set position yet, so some things could change there as well.

With the addition of Mike Phair as the D-Line coach, this unit could really thrive this year. In the past couple of seasons Illinois has been beaten up front, which has resulted in countless long running touchdowns. That'll change this year. This is the most talented defensive line Beckman has had and if this unit performs like they're capable of, the entire defense will improve significantly.

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Follow The Champaign Room on Twitter at @Champaign_Room and Like us on Facebook. You can follow Jim Vainisi on Twitter at @JimVainisi. You can follow Bryce Smith on Twitter at @OrangeBlueCraze.