You all know the drill by now. After learning more about 2017 draftees, fullback Marquez Williams and linebacker Blair Brown, next up in our rookie Q&A series is Dawuane Smoot — a defensive end out of Illinois, and the third-round selection for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
This time around, Steve Bourbon — an editor at SB Nation’s Fighting Illini-dedicated site, The Champaign Room — was able to answer my questions and provide us with his wisdom on one of the Jaguars’ newest pass-rushers.
Steve explains below what we can expect out of Smoot in the NFL, the potential value he brings to Jacksonville, how the coaching he received in college was top-notch and more.
1. At the beginning of the 2016 season, Smoot was actually projected by some outlets as a first-round pick going into his senior season. That quickly changed, and the Jaguars were able to select him in the third round. Why do you think Smoot slid down the ranks in the time from last fall to Draft Day?
I think there are a few reasons Smoot fell in the draft. First, he played on a bad Illinois team. Not only was the team not good, a defense that featured multiple NFL prospects (undrafted free agents Carroll Phillips, Hardy Nickerson, among others) allowed 219.2 rushing yards per game — 105th in the country. I think another reason for his star diminishing a little bit was his lack of production. His sacks dropped from eight to five from his junior to senior season and Phillips outperformed him at times. Smoot still applied pressure (10 quarterback hits) but he always seemed one step away from bringing down the quarterback for a sack.
2. As a third-round pick, what kind of value does Smoot bring to Jacksonville? What is his biggest strength and his biggest weakness?
The other side of the coin in Smoot falling to the third round is that I believe he can provide great value for where he was picked. One of Smoot's biggest strengths is that he's well rounded. He doesn't have a prototypical “go-to” move when pass rushing, but he's shown the ability to be an effective speed rusher without giving up size (he's 6-foot-3, 265 lbs). I think having Lovie Smith and Mike Phair (defensive line coach at Illinois) is a huge plus. He basically had an internship in learning an NFL defense the past year, which should make his transition to the league easier than other prospects.
As far as weaknesses, Smoot doesn't have a dominant pass-rushing move when he needs it, and he's not an outstanding run stuffer. As I said above, the production wasn't there in terms of sacks, but I never got the sense that Smoot was dogging it even after the Illini were losing games.
3. In an interview with Sirius XM NFL Radio, Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell said Smoot can play at either defensive end spot and can occasionally be moved inside. Was Smoot moved around often at Illinois and was he ever used on the interior?
Smoot occasionally played inside at Illinois, but it was mainly in pass-rushing situations, so I'm not sure if that will be a viable option in the NFL. The Illini had Smoot, Phillips and another senior in Gimel President as ends, so I think Lovie was trying to get them all on the field.
Maybe Smoot can situationally go inside, but I don't think he's the type of guy you want playing every down at defensive tackle. As an end, Smoot was able to play at both end positions, and I would expect that to continue as he progresses.
4. With that said, Smoot's most common role with the Jaguars will likely be as a backup strong-side defensive end, rotating in with Calais Campbell. Can you talk about Smoot's ability to get to opposing quarterbacks?
As a rookie, I expect Smoot to be able to affect the game as a third-down pass rusher. He has good burst for his size and commanded a double team from opponents while at Illinois. Though I've mentioned that he's raw, I think Smoot is absolutely relentless when getting to the quarterback. That kind of effort is a skill within itself. Again, Illinois' defense couldn't stop the run against the big boys, and the Illini were often losing, so it's not like he had too many opportunities to pin his ears back and rush the passer, which is another reason for his lack of production.
5. Smoot was able to learn from two great defensive minds in head coach Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson. What is the advantage Smoot brings with him by learning from coaches with NFL experience?
This is a really underrated point. Lovie and defensive coordinator Nickerson have years of NFL experience, and Smoot got an introduction last year to the language and schemes that he'll experience in the league. I really think that Smoot will have a much shorter learning curve than many other rookies and should be ready to contribute sooner than some of his peers. Does he still have developing to do? Plenty. But I would expect that the mental side of his game and understanding of the scheme should be very advanced for a rookie.
While Smoot may not see a ton of on-the-field action as a rookie, we’ll be able to see what he can do as a rotational pass-rusher. It also seems that the Jaguars feel they can move him all around the defensive line. It will be interesting to see if Smoot is able to add to the pass rush and find a role on this defense.
Be sure to follow Steve on Twitter, @Steve_Bourbon, and visit The Champaign Room to read more quality takes on Illinois athletics — including the aforementioned Carroll Phillips, who signed with the Jaguars as an undrafted free agent.