Jeremy Werner

NFL eyes on the Illini

NFL scouts' frequent appearances at Camp Rantoul a welcome sign for the Illini

RANTOUL, Ill. -- The numbers aren’t official, but it’s within the realm of possibility that more NFL scouts have visited the first three days of Illini training camp here than the total amount of scouts that visited the previous two years combined at Camp Rantoul.

“We’ve had quite a few in the last three days,” Illinois football coach Tim Beckman said.

Scouts from six NFL franchises -- the Titans, Seahawks, Jets, Falcons, Buccaneers and Redskins -- appeared for Wednesday morning’s practice. The reps included two well-known names among NFL front office types: Titans scout Tim Ruskell, who spent four years as general manager of the Seattle Seahawks as well as a two-year stint as director of player personnel for the Chicago Bears; and Phil Savage, former GM of the Cleveland Browns and current executive director of the Senior Bowl, one of the premier showcases for NFL prospects.

“That’s a credit to these kids,” Beckman said. “That’s a credit to the players. They’re the ones who are bringing them out. Those scouts aren’t coming out to watch me, that’s for sure. It says a lot for the senior class.”

That’s a welcome sign of program health for the Illini, who have gone back-to-back years without an NFL Draft pick. The program had produced a draft pick in 40 of the previous 41 years. Early word is Illinois could have multiple draft picks next spring.

“It’s at that stage of the program,” offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said.

Who are they coming to watch?

Overwhelmingly, the Illini’s top NFL prospect is Jihad Ward, a 6-foot-6, 285-pound defensive end who has the size and athleticism NFL teams are looking for but not the proven production.

“I think number 17 has something to do with it,” said Cubit, the lead recruiter on Ward, a JUCO transfer.

Scouts also scribbled notes about senior wide receiver Geronimo Allison, senior guard Ted Karras, senior running back Josh Ferguson and senior cornerback/kick returner V’Angelo Bentley. Even safety Clayton Fejedelem, a former walk on and NAIA player, is starting to show up on NFL radars.

“It is preseason,” Illinois co-defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. “For them to really reach them dreams, they’re going to have to perform on Saturdays -- and I think our kids understand that. Hopefully, they got tunnel vision. Hopefully, they didn’t even realize anyone was out here.”

The Illini also have a few sophomores and juniors who likely will pique the interest of NFL scouts, including junior defensive linemen Teko Powell and Dawuane Smoot and redshirt sophomore offensive tackle Christian DiLauro. NFL teams are aware of strong-armed quarterback Wes Lunt, but Cubit said teams don’t ask much about him since he’s just a junior.

After two seasons of Illinois football lacking the bodies and athletes that scouts crave, NFL eyes are back on the Illini.

“We’ve had more than we’ve had the last couple years here,” Beckman said, “so it’s just a credit to the players.”

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