Smoot an 'underdog' unleashed

Smoot an 'underdog' unleashed

By JOEY FIGUEROA

jfigueroa@news-gazette.com

CHAMPAIGN — Dawuane Smoot still remembers his first collegiate tackle.

The 6-foot-3 defensive lineman fondly recalls sprinting 40 yards downfield to catch Southern Illinois slot receiver Israel Lamprakes to put his name in an Illini box score for the first time.

Rather than ending in a sack or a tackle for a loss, like many of Smoot’s defensive plays do nowadays, the pass went for 24 yards and a Salukis first down during a 42-34 Illinois victory to open the 2013 season.

But that tackle acted as a point of realization for the freshman playing in his first college game.

“That was definitely one of my favorite moments,” Smoot said. “Getting that first tackle was huge, just a big weight off my chest. Knowing what you have to prove and knowing I might be able to perform at this level — knowing you can is just huge.”

Smoot appeared in four games during his true freshman season, notching four tackles and his first career sack against Northwestern in the final tilt. It was a sign of things to come.

Fast-forward nearly three years later and Smoot is poised to become the premier player on the Illinois defense.

He’s fresh off a junior campaign that earned him an All-Big Ten honorable-mention selection after leading the team in sacks and becoming the fifth player in Illini history to record 40 tackles, 15 tackles for loss and eight sacks in the same year.

During the offseason, Smoot has been named to the Bednarik Award watch list, which goes to the best defensive player in the country. Pro Football Focus recently ranked him as the 20th-best college player. He’s on multiple All-Big Ten preseason lists, and his name has even popped up as high as the first round on NFL mock draft boards.

Second-year Illini defensive line coach Mike Phair believes all the preseason hype is warranted.

“He’s very, very motivated,” Phair said. “He’s very levelheaded and one of those guys who sets some goals, and he’s going to be driving and doing everything he can to achieve those goals. He’s got some great abilities, he knows how to rush, and the key thing I always say is that he’s very motivated. That’s a good quality.”

 

A father’s support
Darrell Smoot was there for his son’s first tackle during Illinois’ victory against Southern Illinois. He was there in 2014 when his son ravaged Texas State quarterback Tyler Jones for his first career multi-sack game. And he made multiple 41/2-hour drives to see all five of the sacks that his son racked up at Memorial Stadium in 2015.

When it comes to his son’s football career, Darrell Smoot has been there for it all.

“My dad was a big influence when it comes to all sports,” the younger Smoot said. “I give it all to him. He’s been at every single game since high school. He’s been there throughout my whole life, so I love him for it.”

Smoot’s father played running back in high school at Westerville South in Ohio and had his own NFL aspirations. He said he couldn’t keep his grades up, though, so his playing days ended in junior college.

“That’s why I’m so hard on him about his grades,” the elder Smoot said. “My career ended short, so I had to dream through him. I just try to keep the kids busy and get them into sports to keep them out of trouble and keep them off the streets.”

Dawuane Smoot’s father first got him into sports when he was 8 years old. Although he dabbled in a variety of sports and extracurriculars, Smoot latched onto football and track once he began high school at Groveport Madison High School, located in his hometown of Groveport, a suburb of Columbus, Ohio.

His accomplishments on the football field are what’s to be expected from an All-Big Ten-caliber player: 204 tackles and 24 sacks over his junior and senior seasons and an Ohio Capital Conference first-team selection his senior year.

But Smoot doesn’t think that impressive resume would have come without the time he put into track, in which he competed at nationals for shot put, discus and hurdles.

“When it came to track, it was just like a thing to keep me in shape, but I started falling in love with it when I got to high school and started doing hurdles,” Smoot said. “The hurdles definitely helped my flexibility, so when I got on the field I didn’t get hurt as much and was able to move a bit better.”

At a lanky, slender 205 pounds, Smoot didn’t have the typical frame for a high school defensive end, but his agility and grace gave him an edge over most offensive linemen.

“I never got pancaked in high school,” Smoot said with a grin. “I was one of those guys that was like, ‘Don’t touch me.’ They couldn’t get their hands on me.”

 

Familiarity four hours away
Upon graduating from Groveport Madison in 2013, Smoot was the No. 54 player in Ohio and the No. 68 defensive end in the nation. Considering his current success, those rankings seem a bit low in hindsight, as does his three-star recruiting grade.

But similar to the opposing linemen he faced in high school, Smoot brushed off the rankings.

“I’ve always been an underdog,” Smoot said. “I feel like I’ve always been underestimated because of my size and everything like that, so it just gave me a little more desire, like, ‘OK, I’m a three-star.’ I know what I can do, so I just have to go out there and show it.”

Smoot received offers mostly from Ohio-area MAC schools like Ball State, Western Michigan and Eastern Michigan. With the confirmed support of his family, whom he conferred with regularly about his decision, Smoot chose Illinois over his only other Big Ten offers, Ohio State and Indiana.

“I felt the most comfortable at Illinois,” Smoot said. “When I took my trip here, the way I was treated, it was just a family atmosphere. I got along with all the guys when I first came in.”

Despite moving to an entirely different state and being hours away from family, Smoot came to Illinois with a sense of familiarity because of defensive back Caleb Day.

The two Ohio natives had competed against each other in high school track and made the easy decision to room together at Bromley Hall for their freshman and sophomore years.

In fact, the entire football freshman class of 2013 took over the second, third and fourth floors of Bromley, according to Smoot. With Smoot and Day in Room 316, they had teammates on the floors directly above and below them, providing the Ohio natives the type of camaraderie they didn’t necessarily expect from the outset.

Smoot looks back on his days at Bromley as some of his best times off the field.

“Every single room you went to, you knew there was a football player in there,” Smoot said. “Just hanging out with them, that was the biggest thing, just getting used to being on campus all together. We were all on the same page; we were all doing the same things.”

Among that 2013 freshman group was another Ohio native and defensive end, Chunky Clements, whom Smoot knew from the two attending a few of the same football camps during high school.

Being the two seniors expected to anchor the defensive line in 2016, Clements and Smoot share a strong bond on and off the field.

Seeking movie recommendations? Look no further than the 550-pound duo, which has made it a tradition to catch a movie every Thursday night. Smoot had high praises for Pixar’s latest hit, “Finding Dory,” while Clements gave two thumbs up to the new “Ghostbusters” reboot.

“We play games a lot, just relax and chill — those types of things,” Clements said. “(Smoot’s) just a regular dude, for real.”

 

Buying in
When Smoot first met new Illinois coach Lovie Smith, the leader asked his newest defensive project a simple question.

“What is this?” Smith asked, grasping a football.

“It’s a football,” Smoot responded.

“All right, so when you’re sacking the quarterback, what are you going after?” Smith asked.

“His body, I’m tackling him,” Smoot said.

“No,” Smith said. “You’re going after the ball. No matter what, go after that ball.”

It was an interaction that allowed Smoot to buy into Smith’s vision for the revamped defense right away.

Back in his days at Groveport Madison, Smoot was lovingly referred to as “Gazelle” by his trainer, Jimmie Bell, a former defensive lineman for Ohio State. Smoot’s limber and elegant playing style earned him the nickname, and Bell gave Smoot advice similar to Smith’s that has stuck with him to this day.

“He was like, ‘You’re a gazelle, man. Don’t ever walk, don’t ever jog to the ball, you need to be in the frame for every play, be in on every single tackle,’” Smoot said. “So I feel like I just took that to college.”

Smith, not one to make bold statements, has said Smoot possesses what it takes to be an NFL first-rounder. That’s a vote of confidence for Smoot and for Smith’s own ability to bring out the best in his defensive players.

Smoot has made it known it’s a goal of his to break Illinois’ all-time single-season sacks record, which stands at 16. That’s just one of many missions he’s set for himself, including becoming an All-American.

In the center of the Memorial Stadium recruiting area, plaques of every Illini All-American in school history decorate a dimly lit wall. The last plaque to be hung belongs to Whitney Mercilus, the current holder of that single-season sacks record — along with fellow All-American Simeon Rice — that Smoot has set his sights on.

“I want to leave my mark here,” Smoot said. “I want to have that everlasting impact where my name’s going to be on this program. I don’t want to get lost; I want to be in the forefront. That’s my goal.”

 

Thrill of the chase
A look at each Big Ten football team’s returning sacks leader for 2016:

SCHOOL    ATHLETE    POS.    ’15 SACKS    ’15 OTHER STATS
Illinois    Dawuane Smoot    DE    8.0    40 tackles, 15 tackles for loss
Ohio State    Tyquan Lewis    DE    8.0    54 tackles, 14 tackles for loss
Wisconsin    Vince Biegel    LB    8.0    66 tackles, 14 tackles for loss
Michigan    Chris Wormley    DL    6.5    43 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss
Penn State    Brandon Bell    LB    5.5    65 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss
Michigan State    Demetrius Cooper    DE    5.0    22 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss
Northwestern    Ifeadi Odenigbo    DE    5.0    19 tackles, 5 tackles for loss
Nebraska    Freedom Akinmoladun    DE    4.5    21 tackles, 7 tackles for loss
Purdue    Antoine Miles    DE    4.0    28 tackles, 6 tackles for loss
Iowa    Jaleel Johnson    DT    3.5    45 tackles 5.5 tackles for loss
Minnesota    Steven Richardson    DT    3.5    26 tackles, 8 tackles for loss
Maryland    Jesse Aniebonam    DL    3.5    23 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss
Indiana    T.J. Simmons    LB    3.0    73 tackles, 6 tackles for loss
Rutgers    Quanzell Lambert    DE    2.5    43 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss

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