For the second straight year, Illinois had a player drafted into the NFL. But Dawuane Smoot was alone.
The Illini defensive end, who earned hype as a first-round prospect last summer, was selected 68th overall (third round) by the Jacksonville Jaguars -- owned by Illinois grad Shad Khan. Carroll Phillips (surprisingly) wasn't drafted but will join Smoot and Khan in Jacksonville as an undrafted free agent. Several other Illini -- Wes Lunt (Minnesota), Justin Hardee (Houston) and Hardy Nickerson (Cincinnati Bengals) -- also inked free-agent deals on Saturday.
While the Illini weren't shut out of the draft entirely, like they were in 2014 and 2015, Smoot is just the fourth Illini to get drafted during the last four years. We can call this the "Tim Beckman effect."
That's a far cry from the Ron Zook-recruited teams, which produced 19 draft picks during the six-year period from 2008 to 2013 -- including five first-round draft picks and four second-round draft picks. Of course, Zook ultimately didnt coach that talent well enough nor win enough games at Illinois. But he did make three bowl games during his last five seasons in Champaign -- largely on talent alone. Illinois has made just one bowl during the five years since Zook was dismissed.
Meanwhile, Ohio State has produced 19 draft picks the last two years. Michigan had a record 11 players selected this week. In the West division, Iowa led with four draft picks this week, while Wisconsin had three, including two first-rounders (Ryan Ramczyk and T.J. Watt). Northwestern produced two draft picks, while Nebraska, Purdue and Minnesota also produced just one pick.
Beckman simply did not recruit enough talented players to win at a high level. Thus, the Illini haven't won many games, going 20-41 overall during the last five years including an 8-32 Big Ten record. This effect likely will be seen again on the field during the 2017 season when the Illini are expected to finish near the bottom of the conference and division once again.
Illinois needs to recruit and produce more pros if it truly wants to contend in the Big Ten. Will they any time soon?
Following are the players Illini Inquirer thinks have the best chance of being drafted, not players we think will definitely be drafted.
Biggest takeaway? Illinois could be in danger of getting shut out of the next draft or two -- and likely will not have a Day One pick (first round) and maybe not a Day Two pick (second and third rounds) a for a few more years. But Lovie Smith's first recruiting class increases the Illini's size, speed and athleticism, giving hope that the Illini could greatly increase its NFL presence four or five years from now.
The Illini have just eight senior scholarship players but at least half of them are at least intriguing NFL prospects.
Hard to believe Malik Turner is a senior already. But his frame, athleticism, speed and production make him the best bet to be drafted among the Illini next season. CBS Sports has him ranked the No. 80 wide receiver in the 2018 draft, but that seems awfully low. Turner has some similarities to former Illini Geronimo Allison athletically, though Turner is stronger and faster. He has increased his production each year, culminating in a junior season that included 48 catches, 712 yards and six touchdowns -- in a bad offense. He's proven to be a move-the-chains, red-zone and big-play target. He seems like a great fit for the middle rounds and should help his stock in workouts.
Ranked the No. 20 offensive tackle in the 2018 draft by CBS Sports, Christian DiLauro has the frame and quick feet that will attract teams from a pass-happy NFL. DiLauro also plays with a mean streak and has really added strength recently. He would be a higher-rated prospect if he had longer arms. He's made 31 straight starts and competes against some of the best defensive linemen in the country. DiLauro, who at least had thoughts of leaving early, will have plenty of opportunities to impress scouts as a senior and rise up draft boards.
That he's even on this list as a possibility is pretty amazing given that Kendrick Foster struggled to see the field in his first two and a half seasons at Illinois. But he dropped weight last spring and added game-breaking speed to his game. Foster is short, but he is strong for his size. But his ticket to the NFL is his speed and versatility. Improving as a returner and showing more as a receiver though is key for him find a spot on draft boards. CBS Sports currently ranks him the No. 31 running back in the 2018 draft. He's a possible late-round pick if he follows up a break-out junior season (720 rushing yards, seven touchdowns) with a big senior season.
Cornerback Jaylen Dunlap isn't on many radars right now, but he has the length, athleticism and physicality teams are looking for in press corners. Does he have the speed and fluidity? Dunlap started all 12 games as a junior and broke out midway through the season with seven pass breakups during a two-week stretch against Minnesota and Michigan State, proving he has plus ball skills. Another year of tutelage under Lovie Smith should help him refine his game.
The Illini junior class is short on bodies and not that long on NFL talent. But here are a few with a shot.
The player we saw as a freshman looked like a lock for the 2017 or 2018 NFL Draft as a quick, athletic slot receiver with sure hands. Two ACL tears have delayed Dudek's NFL dreams. But he's stronger than ever -- he's jacked -- and as hungry as ever. Now, he just has to get on the field and stay there -- and show that the injuries haven't robbed him of his great physical traits. He'll likely leap to the NFL as quickly as possible given his injury history.
The Florida native earned All-Big Ten honorable mention honors after a break-out sophomore season that included 102 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss. Watson produces and packs a punch. He must continue to work to maximize his speed/athleticism and strength.
Garden City Community College coach Jeff Sims has coached a few pros and he compares Phillips to NFL linebacker Lavonte David. Phillips must prove it at the Big Ten level and needs work in the weight room, but he has the physicality of an NFL linebacker.
Allegretti arguably was the Illini's best offensive linemen in 2016 as a guard but likely will switch to center in 2017. He has the size, physicality and smarts to be a solid NFL center prospect. It's just more difficult for an interior lineman, especially a center, to be drafted.
The Illini have a sophomore class that lacks explosion at the skill positions, but there are some very intriguing big bodies in the trenches.
All the physical traits are there for Megginson to be a well-rounded offensive line prospect. He's big, strong and athletic. He just hasn't shown a mastery yet for the mental side of the game. He may be better suited on the interior than at offensive tackle.
Injuries have held back Milan early in his career. But he has a rare pass-rushing ability. He's able to stay low to the ground yet remain quick and strong. He may have a higher ceiling than any player on the roster this spring. He just needs to stay on the field.
Watkins might have been overshadowed in the secondary last year by fellow freshmen Stanley Green and Patrick Nelson. But Watkins has the best physical traits: length, speed and physicality. He has a long way to go though.
This is a shot in the dark. Solomon hasn't started a Big Ten game yet. But he will. He's a road-grading run blocker but is really suspect right now as a pass blocker. He'd be better suited inside, but he has the massive frame and physicality to have a chance.
This is where it all comes down to projection, which mostly focuses on physical traits (size, speed, athleticism). These players all have a long way to prove themselves as Big Ten players, let alone NFL prospects. But this class has more of those traits than any other on the Illini. Still, in four years, some of these names might look silly on this list.
The Brother Rice receiver doesn't have the most elite physical traits, but he is an ultimate competitor with the drive to be great. He should produce immediately -- and a lot -- for Illinois.
Already the size of an NFL prospect, the big and mean Larry Boyd just needs to really hone his technique for the next few years. He could be a possible four-year starter.
The Peoria defensive tackle has a devastating burst and (thanks in part to wrestling) is a great hand tactician already.
When Lovie Smith makes a player his top priority, that kid must be talented. Long and athletic, Roundtree has the type of frame NFL teams desire.
Power and burst off the edge make Carney one to watch.
Oladipo is really raw as a football player, but that frame and potential versatility to play outside and inside give him a chance.
Another ridiculously raw linebacker prospect, but a linebacker who runs a 4.5 40-yard dash has a chance.
Length, athleticism and track speed. Hobbs has the chance to be a top playmaker.
Palczewski is probably 30 to 40 pounds away and a few years of practice away from making an impact. But there aren't many 6-foot-6 offensive tackles who move like he can.
The Florida tight end is 6-foot-6 and athletic. Let's see how he looks when he adds 25 pounds of strength.
A boom-or-bust college prospect, Lowe is the rare recruit who has to trim up, Lowe needs a consistent mean streak and a lot of technique work. But if it ever all clicks, look out.