Illinois football’s Mike Phair ready for next project

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Folake Osibodu | Photo editor

Illinois’ Jihad Ward (17) attempts to block Louisiana Tech’s Cody Sokol’s (19) pass during the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl at Cotton Bowl Stadium in Dallas, Texas on Friday, Dec. 26, 2014. The Illini lost 35-18.

By Michal Dwojak, Staff writer

Mike Phair has held many roles during his football career.

Illinois football’s co-defensive coordinator has helped discover college football players who could become stars in the NFL. Phair has coached Pro Bowlers and Hall of Fame defensive players and worked alongside the NFL’s brightest minds.

Now, the Illini’s defensive line coach faces another challenge: improving the Big Ten’s worst defense. Illinois ranked at the bottom of nearly every defensive category in the conference last season. The Big Ten’s best running backs ripped their way through Illinois’ defensive line and shredded its secondary.

Phair has started the process of repairing the defense, more specifically the defensive line, during the summer and the NFL-style Camp Rantoul. Although he’s encouraged with what he’s seen from his players, he’s aware that the group is far from a finished product.

“We still have a ways to go,” Phair said. “We have to get some more stuff going, but we can get a lot better from there.”

Head coach Tim Beckman added an experienced coach when he hired Phair during the offseason. Phair has been part of three NFL organizations — the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Seattle Seahawks and Chicago Bears — and divided his time as a scout, assistant defensive coach and defensive line coach. He also coached at Arizona State and Tiffin (Ohio) University.

Although he’s worked with professional players throughout his career, his coaching style hasn’t changed now that he is coaching college athletes, even though the structure of the college game is a little different.

Phair’s defensive line has taken some hits early in his tenure at Illinois. Top defensive end Jihad Ward will miss the first two games of the season with an undisclosed injury and Paul James III left the University without an explanation. Beckman also announced Tuesday that Teko Powell suffered an injury on the foot he’s had surgery on twice — Beckman said Powell and his family will decide what the defensive tackle will do going forward. Beckman also announced Wednesday that defensive tackle Joe Fotu and safety Caleb Day have been suspended indefinitely for violations of team policy. Fotu was expected to help anchor the line with the injuries players had already suffered.

Despite the circumstances, the coaching staff remains confident in the group’s depth and talent.

“Jamal’s (Milan) been playing at that position,” Beckman said. “We’ve got some depth there, we have Joe Fotu, but we have four defensive lineman.”

The lack of players shouldn’t hurt Phair and the group due to his rolling-coaching method. Each player on the line receives the same amount of reps to prepare for every situation. The goal is for the unit to move and play fast while also forcing turnovers.

Three-star recruit Milan and junior Rob Bain have impressed Phair and the rest of the coaching staff and Dawuane Smoot, who is listed on the roster as an LEO, has taken reps with the defensive line and could fill the spot during Ward’s absence. The staff is far from determining who will get the most reps on Sept. 4 against Kent State.

Although a championship — like the one Phair was part of in 2003 with Super Bowl Champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — doesn’t seem attainable this season, the co-defensive coordinator is focused on his next project.

“It’s just one of those deals where another guy gets to play,” Phair said. “They just have to adjust on their own, and I think the guys have done a good job of taking advantage of the opportunities.”

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