Projecting where Illini defensive players could be drafted
Although Lovie Smith's initial Illinois team struggled through a disappointing 3-9 season in 2016, four players from the defensive front seven got invitations to the NFL Scouting Combine.
Of the four, edge rusher Dawuane Smoot is projected to be the highest draft pick, probably on Day 2 (in rounds 2-3). At 6 feet, 3 inches and 264 pounds, Smoot played left defensive end for the Illini. At the NFL level, however, he projects best to outside linebacker in a 3-4 alignment that the Bears and other teams play, although he could also stay at left end in a 4-3.
Carroll Phillips was Smith's right defensive end, but at 6 feet, 3 inches and 242 pounds, he also projects best to outside linebacker in a 4-3. He's likely to be drafted in the middle rounds.
Hardy Nickerson Jr. should remain at linebacker, where he had more than 100 tackles in each of his final two seasons. Nickerson played his first three seasons at California, and then transferred to Illinois when his father, Hardy Nickerson Sr., a five-time Pro Bowl player, was hired as Illinois' defensive coordinator.
Nickerson Jr. is undersized at a fraction under 6 feet tall, and he weighs in 232 pounds. He may need show an aptitude for special teams to make a roster as a late-round pick or priority free agent.
Chunky Clements, who fits best as a 3-technique tackle in a 4-3 front, is also projected as a late-round pick. Clements knows he'll have to maintain a higher level of play down in and down out in the NFL than he did in college.
"That was a knock that I had sometimes," he said, speaking of a lack of consistency. "I want to take that knock off as soon as I can and prove that I can do it every play, every week, every Sunday."
The 6-foot-2, 301-pound Clements admitted there was some competition among his Illini teammates, although he considers them good friends.
"Most definitely," Clements said, and then laughing, he added, "Smoot's still salty that I got the MVP in a high school camp over him. But just being able to share this experience (at the Combine) with these guys is great."
Clements spoke to the media shortly before the linemen were scheduled to bench press, and he predicted a victory for himself. He was partially right. Clements and Phillips each repped 225 pounds 23 times, while Nickerson put up 18 and Smoot elected not to lift.
Under Smith's tutelage, Phillips enjoyed a monster senior season with 20 tackles for loss and 9 sacks.
"I always had ability," Phillips said. "I just didn't have the opportunity to make plays and be in the game. When Lovie came, I just took advantage of the opportunity."
Phillips says he feels better prepared to take the next step after a season under Smith, the former Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach.
"He came with an NFL style and an NFL scheme," Phillips said of Smith. "And he showed me how to be a pro, how to be an NFL player."
Despite his 9 sacks in 2016, Phillips disputes the notion that he's a situational player.
"I wouldn't say I'm a pass-rush specialist," he said. "I'm an every-down player."
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