One small sign of a college program's health is NFL interest in its players.
Illinois has gone two years without a player getting selected in the seven-round NFL Draft. It appears that will change this year.
Three Illinois players -- defensive end Jihad Ward, running back Josh Ferguson and receiver Geronimo Allison -- were among the 58 Big Ten players (and just more than 300 college players) invited to this month's NFL Scouting Combine, a showcase of drills and interviews in Indianapolis.
No Illini players were invited to the NFL combine last season. Linebacker Jonathan Brown was the only Illini player invited in 2014, but he went undrafted.
Ward, who likely will play the five technique as a 3-4 defensive end, is the Illini's top-rated prospect. NFL Draft analyst Scott Wright of DraftCountdown.com ranks Ward, a 6-foot-6, 285-pound defensive lineman, as the draft's No. 60 overall prospect. Ward participated in Senior Bowl practices -- and raised his stock with his performance -- but did not participate in the game due to a minor injury.
"Jihad Ward's another guy who really impressed at the Senior Bowl and really made money," Wright said. "He had a lot of fans coming into his senior year with high expectations for him. He kind of had a disappointing senior campaign. But he went down to the Senior Bowl and kind of reminded everyone why they fell in love with him. He's just a big athlete. The conern is where are you going to play him. Is he a defensive end? He's not a dyamic pass rusher. He's more of a base end or that five technique in a 3-4, while if you put him inside that athleticism becomes pretty special. But a guy that big and that athletic, I don't think he escapes the top-100."
Wright ranks Ferguson as the 13th best running back in the class and Allison as the 23rd best receiver.
Ferguson and Allison both played in the East-West Shrine Game last month. Ferguson had 33 rushing yards on eight carries to go along with four catches for 11 yards. Allison had six catches for 68 yards and two touchdowns. Allison also was a late invite to the Senior Bowl as an injury replacement.
"Geronimo Allison is a player who really helped himself, not only with a nice senior campaign but he impressed at the East-West Shrine Game and earned an invite to the Senior Bowl," Wright said. "Allison's a guy who is rising right now. I think he absolutely gets drafted and maybe even in the middle rounds."
Wright ranks Fejedelem, the Big Ten's leading tackler (140 tackles), as the 19th best safety prospect and Karras as the 15th best guard.