Change in culture, leadership will drive Illinois football defense

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Austin Yattoni | The Daily I

Illinois Football practices for the upcoming season at Memorial Stadium on April 16.

By Cole Henke, Staff writer

Illinois head football coach Lovie Smith, a known defensive guru during his time in the NFL, wants his players to have an offensive mindset on defense.

One of the Illini’s biggest focuses this season will be winning the turnover battle, something that they were able to do over the course of the 2015 season: The Illini forced four more turnovers than they committed last season, good enough for fourth in the Big Ten.

“They determine the winner by who has the most points on the board,” Smith said. “We don’t come in with the defensive mentality of just stopping them. It is about getting the ball back.”

The Illini defense will be led by senior defensive lineman Dawuane Smoot. Smith said that he will be the next Illini drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft.

“My first meeting with (Smith), he came up to me and told me he was going to make me into a first rounder,” Smoot said. “(Smith) bringing that pro mentality to this team is huge. It has really changed a lot.”

Smith said that Smoot’s drive and work ethic are what cause the most disagreements between the lineman and the coaching staff.

“He is always playing hard, and he wants to be out there every rep,” Smith said. “Our disagreements have been when we have to take reps away from him in practice. He doesn’t like that. He has worked very hard this offseason. I believe some players deserve to have good seasons, and he is one of them.”

Smoot started in all 12 games for the Illini last season, leading the team in tackles for a loss (15) and sacks (8.0). Pro Football Focus has ranked Smoot as the 20th best player in college football and preseason Third Team All-American.

The Illini lost many defensive starters from last season, including NFL draftees Jihad Ward and Clayton Fejedelem.

These losses left big holes to fill in the early stages of Smith’s Illini tenure, not only from a production standpoint, but also a leadership standpoint.

Smith and his staff worked quickly to fill the holes, bringing in linebacker Hardy Nickerson Jr., a senior transfer from California and son of Illini defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson.

“To be able to add a player like (Nickerson Jr.) late in the game like this is huge,” Smith said. “He is going to have as much impact as a mic’d linebacker (Nickerson Jr. will be wearing a microphone during games) can have in a defensive scheme. We are going to be playing in a linebacker-friendly scheme, and we are going to be expecting big plays from him.”

Nickerson Jr. has leadership experience — he was the captain of the 2015 California Bears. He led the team with 112 tackles in 2015, with 54 solo tackles.

This defensive mindset is just one change in a complete overhaul of the Illini coaching staff that has taken place since March. But the players are welcoming the change.

“Everybody loves turnovers,” Smoot said. “Everybody loves sacks and sack fumbles. I think it is going to be a lot more fun.”

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