Illinois football’s defensive line shows up against Middle Tennessee State

Dawuane+Smoot+gets+into+his+stance+before+the+snap+in+Illinois%27+27-25+victory+over+Middle+Tennessee+State+at+Memorial+Stadium+on+Saturday.

Tyler Courtney | The Daily Illin

Dawuane Smoot gets into his stance before the snap in Illinois’ 27-25 victory over Middle Tennessee State at Memorial Stadium on Saturday.

By Michal Dwojak, Staff writer

Illinois football co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Mike Phair expressed his feelings about the defensive line’s performance in the first three games of the season in a unique way.

The coach posted signs all over the defensive line’s meeting room that had the number “one” written on them — the number of sacks the defense had after three games. Phair was not pleased with the group’s performance because he expected the line, filled with veteran players, to make a great difference this season.

“One sack, are you kidding me?” Phair was quoted saying by defensive end Jihad Ward.

Players on the line knew they weren’t performing to the expectations set by the coaching staff and themselves.

“That’s just out of line,” Ward said of the line’s performance in the first three games. “We’re supposed to be rush men. It really meant something to us when we saw that. We had to prove the coach wrong.”

Ward and the rest of the players on the line responded to their coach’s disgust against Middle Tennessee State. Illinois recorded three sacks against the Blue Raiders and created consistent pressure on the quarterback for the first time this season. Dawuane Smoot had two individual sacks while Ward and Chunky Clements combined for the third.

The line looks better than in years past, which the players credited to the team’s summer lifting program. Smoot, Ward, Clements and Rob Bain are stronger than in seasons past and have already made their presence felt. The line’s biggest play of the season also came against Middle Tennessee State: Smoot forced a fumble that was scooped by Ward who returned it for 17 yards before fumbling. The play ultimately ended with Clements recovering the ball.

Part of the group’s slow start can be blamed on its lack of depth early in the season. The major injury was a knee injury to Ward. Although he’s yet to miss a game and said the injury hasn’t affected his performance, he didn’t make any standout plays in the first three games of the season. Ward did, however, miss at least half of training camp.

Other players like Teko Powell, Joe Fotu and Jamal Milan have battled injuries this season, forcing Phair and his staff to limit switching players out between plays.

Applying pressure to the quarterback is the first step of a successful defense. If the defensive line applies pressure and limits the running game, the linebackers and the secondary can adjust accordingly.

Recent Illinois d-linemen have struggled with that and the domino effect spread to the rest of the defense.

The constant pressure against Middle Tennessee State was a welcome sight for the entire team, especially the secondary.

“(Constant pressure on the quarterback) is huge,” safety Clayton Fejedelem said. “It gets the quarterback off his gameplan, it changes the timing. It changes the timing between his receivers. It allows us to execute and make plays on the ball.”

The signs are still up in the defensive line’s meeting room as of Monday, according to Ward.

Although the group is proud of its accomplishments against the Blue Raiders, the players know there is still plenty to attain in order to reach the unit’s and the coaches’ level of expectation.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” Ward said. “We got off the ball and we had some good sacks, but we have a lot of work to do.”

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