Phair brings NFL flair to Illini defense

This offseason, the Illinois football team brought in an NFL coaching veteran to shore up its weakest area.

With the dismissal of defensive line coach Greg Colby at the end of the season, the Illini hired Mike Phair to coach the defensive line and gave him the co-defensive coordinator title.

While it’s unclear who will be calling plays alongside incumbent defensive coordinator Tim Banks, Phair is expected to work with the defensive linemen. Phair was the defensive line coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season and held at the same position with the Chicago Bears from 2011-13.

Phair’s last stint as a college coach was in 2001, when he was the linebackers coach at Tiffin University in Tiffin, Ohio. While it’s been over a decade since Phair was in the college ranks, his coaching style is a familiar one to Illini players.

“He’s like coach Cubit, he wants everything perfect,” senior Jihad Ward said. “We definitely need a coach like him. He’s a great coach.”

“I’m all about the details,” Phair added. “Pay attention to all the details and trying to teach the guys that details matter.

“I’ve never been called a perfectionist, though,” he said with a laugh.

Last year, the Illini defense allowed nearly 240 yards per game on the ground, the worst in the Big Ten.

Illinois will benefit from getting healthy this season. Linebacker Mike Svetina will return after a broken foot forced him to miss the entire 2014 season after starting 11 games as a sophomore in 2013. He was a full participant in Sunday’s practice.

In addition, defensive lineman Teko Powell, who missed all but three games last year with a foot injury of his own, will return this fall although is not expected to be available at all this spring. Powell was granted a medical redshirt for last season.

“At that position, you’ve got to be perfect,” head coach Tim Beckman said. “We all know that the game of football is won in the trenches.”

In addition to stopping the run, the Illini will need to work on turnovers. Illinois was 81st in the nation in turnover margin, at minus-3, and each defensive positional group spent a portion of Sunday’s practice on stripping the ball. The first defender wrapped up, while the second ripped away at the ball.

Phair has only been working with the team for the past three weeks during winter workouts and the first two spring practices this weekend. With the first two practices without pads, Phair will continue to learn about his position group once the team hits full pads for practice Monday morning.

While working in conjunction with Banks, Phair was very clear to say that the two, along with Beckman, will be working in unison in running the defense.

“I’m learning our defense here, and it’s not like I’m bringing in something totally different,” Phair said. “It’s our defense, and so I’m just learning everything and sprinkling in some ideas here and there.”

Additional Notes

Wes Lunt and Jeff George Jr. were the only two completely healthy quarterbacks on the field for the team’s first two spring practices over the weekend. Redshirt freshman Chayce Crouch and early enrollee Jimmy Fitzgerald were both in green jerseys, meaning limited participation without contact. Crouch is dealing with a hamstring injury while Fitzgerald is still recovering from a torn ACL sustained in September.

Number changes: With spring ball comes number changes. Tyrin Stone-Davis switched from No. 2 to No. 15, while Joe Fotu made the change from 98 to 42. Sophomore wide receiver Malik Turner also changed from No. 86 to No. 11.

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