Lovie Smith's staff has more NFL coaching experience than any college coaching staff in the country. But what the Illini really need are more NFL players.
After a two-year NFL Draft drought from 2014-15, the Illini are starting to churn out more pros. Three were drafted last year: Jihad Ward (2nd round - Raiders), Ted Karras (6th round - Patriots) and Clayton Fejedelem (7th round - Bengals). Two other Illini players -- Josh Ferguson (Colts) and Geronimo Allison (Packers) -- stuck on NFL rosters most of the season after going undrafted.
The Illini are expected to produce a few more this weekend when the 2017 NFL Draft is held in Philadelphia. No Illini is expected to be taken in Thursday's first round, but most expect three Illini to be drafted with a few more with at least a chance to hear their names called.
Where are the Illini expected to go? Where would they best fit?
Illini Inquirer breaks down the possibilities for five Illini NFL Draft hopefuls.
Strengths: Smoot is simply a disruptor. He has great handwork tow in one-on-one battles and has the bend and speed to get under bigger tackles. He's equally strong against the run, where he reads and anticipates well. He's a sure tackler who has the versatility to play as a 4-3 defensive end or 3-4 outside linebacker. He has a high motor, never quits on plays and closes well.
Weaknesses: Smoot isn't that long (6-foot-3) and needs to add more strength as he got overpowered by some of the better offensive tackles he opposed. He had a pec injury during the NFL Combine and had an underwhelming vertical jump, which is a sign of a lack of explosion. He has above average physical tools but not the elite traits or production that would make him a first-rounder.
Projection: Late 2nd to early 4th round -- Smoot entered the 2016 season with first-round hype. While he had a good season (15.0 tackles for loss, 5.0 sacks), it wasn't an elite season. Smoot also has the misfortune of entering a draft class deep in pass rushers, which could drop him down a half a round or more.
Best NFL fit: L.A. Chargers -- The Chargers are switching to a 4-3 and need versatile defensive ends.
Strengths: Phillips is a freak athlete with barely an once of body fat. His elite explosion off the edge and ability to stay low to the ground is tough for 6-foot-5+, 300+ pound offensive tackles.
Weaknesses: He's a bit one dimensional as a speed rusher. He needs to add some counter moves at the next level and teams will run straight at him because he struggles to hold his ground against power-run schemes. Phillips, 25, is an old rookie and has a serious neck injury in his past.
Projection: Rounds 3-5 -- Phillips is a specialist, but he enters the NFL at the right time. Situational pass rushers are in high demand, and he'll find a role.
Best NFL fit: Seattle Seahawks -- Seattle lost Bruce Irvin a year ago, and Phillips could fill a similar speed-rush role.
Strengths: Everything you'd expect in the son of a coach and a former NFL great. Nickerson is a smart, instinctive and tough leader. Knows where to be and when to get there, and usually gets there. He has solid sideline-to-sideline speed, is a very good open-field tackler and made some plays in pass coverage.
Weaknesses: Nickerson is undersized and may struggles getting off blocks at times. While he isn't slow (4.81 40), he's not the qu
Projection: Late 5th to 7th -- Nickerson may not have the highest ceiling, but he'll at least be a solid backup middle linebacker who makes an impact on special teams. He's also a very high character player who will be a plus in the meeting and locker rooms.
Best NFL fit: New England Patriots -- A 3-4 team needs multiple middle linebackers, and the Patriots make a living off players who seemingly out-play their talent level. Nickerson would fit right in to this winning culture.
Strengths: Lunt has an NFL arm and can make all the throws, including the back-shoulder throws that an NFL QB without mobility needs to make. He can drop passes into tight windows, and often was forced to during his Illinois career. He is a highly intelligent player who has been bred in pro-style systems. He is NFL ready. He mostly played under center last year and made checks and calls at the line of scrimmage all three years at Illinois. He is a film junkie.
Weaknesses: Lunt didn't have much around him at Illinois, but he failed to lift up or inspire those around him. Though most teammates liked him, he is not a vocal leader. He caves in the face of pressure and goes down easily, earning him a "soft" label. He also has been hampered by a myriad of injuries during his college career.
Projection: Undrafted free agent -- Lunt had the talent to be drafted, possibly early. But he lacks that "it" factor of star quarterbacks. Still, he has the size and arm the pros want, and he has the work ethic and intelligence teams will like in their facility. The NFL needs backup quarterbacks, and Lunt has the chance to hold a clipboard for several years.
Best NFL fit: Baltimore Ravens -- Lunt has a lot of physical similarities to Joe Flacco's backup, Ryan Mallett, without the personal turn-offs. He could make a good career holding a clipboard and being a positive presence in the QB room.
Strengths: Clements has the look of an NFL three-technique. He's solidly built with great burst off the line of scrimmage. He can get upfield quickly and disrupt the backfield.
Weaknesses: Clements was very inconsistent at Illinois and lost playing time to younger players because of it. He needs to play lower, but technique can be taught. Clements' issue seemed to be consistent effort and focus.
Projection: Undrafted free agent
Best NFL fit: Dallas Cowboys -- Clements can play both the two- and one-gap scheme, but we think he's a better fit in a one-gap, penetrating defense like Dallas, which needs help up front.
Illini players with chance to make NFL camp
Solid all-around defensive end but there aren't any elite traits here, and he couldn't hold a starting spot at Illinois or Auburn.
Speedster ran a 4.35 40-yard dash at the Illini Pro Day, but he lacks receiver refinement and didn't produce much at Illinois.
Weight-room warrior will get a chance to play nose tackle for someone, but he's a bit stiff and had some injuries last year. He lost playing time to freshmen defensive tackles Jamal Milan and Kenyon Jackson.
Three-year starter was solid, especially in pass protection, but he likely lacks the strength to stick in the NFL.
Great Illini representative, MBA earner, long-time starter and all-human team selection, Spencer is just undersized for the NFL.