Dawuane Smoot hurdling toward stardom for Illinois defense

Illinois defensive end Dawuane Smoot had a breakout season in 2015, leading the team with eight sacks, 15 tackles and three forced fumbles. Mike Granse/USA TODAY Sports

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- When Illinois defensive end Dawuane Smoot met with Lovie Smith for the first time in March, Smith had this message for him: "I want to make you a first-rounder."

Naturally, Smoot took an instant liking to his new head coach. The feeling was mutual. If there's one potential superstar on Smith's first Illini defense, it's Smoot.

The senior had a breakout season in 2015, leading the team with eight sacks, 15 tackles and three forced fumbles. His numbers dwarfed those of teammate Jihad Ward, who has been projected as a possible second-round NFL draft pick this weekend. Smoot is setting his sights even higher in 2016.

"I want to try to be [an NFL] first-rounder and to be an All-American," he said. "Double-digit sacks and then go to the league. Those are my expectations."

Those are lofty goals, especially considering that only four players in Illinois history have ever reached 10 or more sacks in a season (the legendary Simeon Rice did it twice). Yet Smoot is used to clearing hurdles. Literally.

He was a standout track and field athlete in high school, starring in the shot put, discus and hurdles. Smoot struck an imposing figure in the starting blocks as a 6-foot-3, 225-pound high school junior. But hurdling came naturally to him. His father and sister had both competed in the same event.

"Most of the other hurdlers were like 190-to-200 pounds, if that," he said. "Some of them underestimated me, thinking I was slow. But then I'd show them."

Smoot made it to the nationals in his three events, finishing 30th in the 400-meter hurdles at the 2010 USA Track and Field Junior Olympics. But he gave up the sport as a senior to focus on football. The Groveport, Ohio, native chose Illinois over Indiana, Cincinnati and several MAC schools in part because he saw the opportunity for immediate playing time. And he got on the field for seven games as a true freshman, though he was overpowered at times by Big Ten tackles.

"It was tough," he said. "I was about 230 pounds, and I had to get adjusted to the game and the speed."

Smoot put on nearly 40 pounds by his sophomore year and is now listed at 270. He credits last season's breakout to the arrival of assistant coach Mike Phair, who was retained by Smith as defensive line coach. Smoot focused this offseason on slimming down, losing more than 10 pounds, so he could recover some of his track speed. His already quick first step could get even quicker.

Smith has work to do in building this defense, particular in the back end. But he said the defensive line might be the strength of the entire team. It's easy to see why, as the Illini could start four seniors along the front, including another emerging star in Chunky Clements.

"With Smoot leading the way," defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson said, "we've got a group of guys we feel can play, and play at a very high level."

Smoot said he didn't follow the Chicago Bears or Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- Smith's past two teams -- very closely. Still, he was excited to hear that Smith would bring his ferocious brand of defense to Champaign and called him "a legend." His dad was even more excited.

"He was hootin' and hollerin' and telling me all this stuff about him," Smoot said.

Smoot provides a reason for excitement on this year's defense. We might even get a glimpse of his former hurdling prowess this fall.

"You might see that this season," he says, laughing. "If a running back tries to cut me, I might just jump over him."

And Smoot might just leap his way into that first-round discussion by the time the season is over.