CHAMPAIGN (WCIA) — Dawuane Smooth, Carroll Phillips, and Chunky Clements are all now in the NFL, meaning the Illinois defensive line will have plenty of new names to learn this season.
Illinois’ defensive line looks vastly different than it did just a year ago.
“It’s a lot of young guys,” defensive line coach Mike Phair said. “There’s a couple veterans but they don’t have a lot of experience playing. So, really, as a whole, I’ve got seven new guys.”
The Illini’s 2016 D-line was an experienced front featuring Carroll Phillips, Duwaune Smoot, and Chunky Clements who are all now part of NFL rosters. The starting four combined for 18.5 sacks and 45.5 tackles for loss.
“There’s a lot of pride when you look at our guys, and there’s a lot of pride in our room,” Phair added. “So they’re the ones that kind of started it. We just have to keep going.”
And it’ll have to be done with some new faces. Along with seven freshman, senior James Crawford joins the line after spending the majority of last season at linebacker.
“They say I’m something like Carroll Phillips with a little more speed. So, being a speed rusher that’s something rare that people have,” senior James Crawford said. “So, I’ll be able to use that.”
“He’s got juice. We all kind of talk about him. He can really rush. He’s got that edge rush to him,” Phair said of Crawford. “We’re always looking for rushers. So, to me, that was a big deal in bringing him over.”
While Crawford has three years of experience under his belt, the biggest challenge for defensive line coach Mike Phair, is getting the underclassman up to speed. That includes Jamal Milan who, with just five starts, is one of the most experienced players on the line.
“They’re hearing it for the first few times. It’s that part of it,” Phair explained. “Just them hearing me and then really knowing my lingo and how I talk.”
“Obviously we’re pretty young, but that means nothing,” Jamal Milan added. “Right now we’re just trying to get a nice tempo of all the guys just being able to run, learning technique, being able to play fast.”
Playing fast and learning fast will be important for this youthful line if they hope to put any pressure on opposing quarterbacks.