In an effort to learn more about two recent additions to Washington’s roster, I reached out the the folks running the University of Illinois SBNation site, The Champaign Room, to see if they might provide some insight into defensive backs Quan Martin and Kendall Smith. Matt Rejc graciously agreed to do so.
My questions, and his answers, are below:
- For someone who doesn’t watch a ton of college football, but pays a lot of attention to the NFL draft, the amount of talent on Illinois’ defensive secondary last year seems like it was ridiculous. Witherspoon, Martin, Brown, and Smith, all picked up by pro teams. How did the Illini put together such an incredible secondary, and can you talk a little bit about how all these pieces worked together?
That story actually starts with former Illinois Head Coach Lovie Smith, who initially recruited all of those players to Champaign. Though none of those players were highly rated coming out of high school, Lovie and his staff definitely had an eye for NFL potential.
After several underwhelming years at Illinois, Lovie was replaced by Bret Bielema in 2021. Bielema, his staff, and his more modern defensive scheme helped Witherspoon, Martin, Brown, and Smith to elevate their play and grab the attention of NFL scouts.
As a unit, there’s one attribute really defined their play style, and that’s toughness. Coming from the run-heavy Big Ten, they’re not just looking to bring down the ball carrier, but hit him hard and try to force a fumble. Same went for opposing receivers in Illinois’ mostly man-to-man defensive scheme under Bielema.
- Washington selected Quan Martin with its second pick in the draft, surprising a lot of Commanders’ fans who thought the team’s secondary was probably already set. What’s the unique skillset that Martin brings, and how do you expect him to transition to the pros?
Quan exemplifies the toughness and physicality that I mentioned above. But he also brought intelligence, leadership, and a high football IQ to the secondary, owing to the incredible amount of experience that he accrued in his long tenure at Illinois.
He easily transitioned from Lovie’s single-high safety defensive scheme to Bielema’s man-heavy 3-3-5, so I have no doubt he’ll adapt to the Commanders’ defense quickly as well.
When I had a chance to interview Quan after Illinois’ ReliaQuest Bowl game, I asked him how he was preparing for the transition to the pro game. He told me that there’s nothing specific that he’ll be working on in the lead up to the draft, only that he’s planning to “maximize my ability in the next couple months…and lock in and be the best me.” He clearly has a lot of confidence in his game, and has every reason to.
- After the draft, Washington picked up Kendall Smith as an undrafted free agent. It’s easy to see from his evaluations how he could be an asset on special teams, but do you think he could be a defensive contributor, or even a starter someday, in the pros? Tell us about his role on Illinois’ 2022 defense.
Like Quan, Kendall Smith also benefits from the bevy of experience that he gained at the college level. Smith knows exactly where to be in the passing game to put himself in position to break up or intercept passes.
As a sure tackler, I’m confident he’ll have a major presence on special teams, and he absolutely has potential to make an impact in the secondary as well. Kendall Smith kept working hard at Illinois over the course of his five years on campus, through changes in his position, coaching, and scheme, but his hard work paid off big when he finally broke into the scene in 2022.
Do you have anything else to add about either Martin or Smith?
Both are solid, high-character guys who will make plays on the field and be a stabilizing presence in the locker room.
Over the course of their Illini careers, they weathered the lowest of lows and the enjoyed the highest of highs. Through all of the turbulence in our program, they stuck it out with the Illini rather than head into the transfer portal. I’ll be sure to follow the Commanders this upcoming year and can’t wait to see Quan and Kendall make contributions at the next level.
Thanks so much, Matt, for giving us insight into two of the newest Commanders.
Does this background make you more, less, or equally excited about the prospects of adding these Illini?
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