Last week I previewed the players to watch for the UNC vs. Georgia game. The options varied, but inevitably the picks were obvious, and easy. This week I am going to take a look into who to watch when UNC matches up against Illinois. The picks weren’t as easy this time, but I managed to commit to a player (or a few) from each team.
Illinois Player to Watch: Dawuane Smoot
Defensive End Dawuane Smoot is the key player to keep an eye on for Illinois in Champaign. According to most mock drafts, Smoot is a top 5-ranked defensive end for this upcoming draft and is expected to go in the first round. I even saw a graphic this weekend where Smoot was named the #5 player overall on Todd McShay’s big board. That is how highly touted this guy is.
The six-foot-five, 265-pound senior is destined to have another great year after putting up eight sacks and 15 tackles for loss in 2015. During Illinois’ game this past weekend Smoot was disruptive as ever, blowing up plays and reeking havoc along the defensive line.
However, the majority of the defensive line is made up of new faces this year. This means that Smoot may see more double teams rather than the one-on-one matchups he saw the majority of last season. His numbers may be down this year overall as a result, but he is definitely the anchor of this Illinois defense, and someone to keep an eye on Saturday.
UNC Player to Watch: (Insert Wide Receiver name here)
All of the wide receivers? Can I do that? Illinois’ passing defense ranked 15th in the country last season. However, they are only returning one starter from this secondary, and one starter total from last year’s back seven.
Illinois’ defense is young and inexperienced. The UNC group of wide receivers is the complete opposite, led by three seniors. They are one of the best and most experienced in the country, though they did not get off to a good start against Georgia as Switzer, Hollins and Howard combined for 10 receptions for 73 yards. I personally believe that they will take their frustrations out on the Illinois secondary on Saturday.
The main wide receiver to watch for UNC is Mack Hollins. He missed the first half against Georgia due to a suspension, and ended the game with just 1 reception for six yards. North Carolina needs to get the deep ball going finally, and Hollins is UNC’s best deep threat. Look for him to have a breakout game this Saturday.
Illinois’ two safeties each had an interception last week, but as a unit they looked underwhelming. Overall, the UNC wide receivers should have a field day against the inexperienced secondary that Illinois brings to the table.
Last year Ryan Switzer absolutely torched Illinois’ special teams, racking up a school-record 168 punt return yards. Illinois may key in on him this game, but they just don’t have the personnel to contain Switzer. Look for him to have another standout performance and maybe (hopefully) tie the NCAA career punt return touchdown record, against Illinois.