Illinois Bred Talent in the 2006 NFL Draft

Illinois had no football player drafted by the NFL this year, but the state of Illinois had a few success stories. Illinisports shares his third annual summation of the NFL draft and its significance for Illini fans in this article.

Another NFL draft has come and gone, so it is time for our third annual state-by-state draft review. A study of the home towns of all draftees allows us to see which states produce the most football talent. The state of Illinois can then be compared with the others to determine the relative strength of football talent compared with the rest of the country.

As has been true each of the last three years, the state of Illinois did not produce any first round draft picks in 2006. In fact, no athlete from Illinois was drafted until the fourth round. This is worse than the last two years as the state had a third round draftee in 2004 and two second round draftees in 2005. For 2006, 16 states produced first round draft choices, while 29 states produced at least one draftee within the first three rounds.

So while Illinois tied for seventh in overall draft numbers with nine players drafted, there was a definite lack of star power. The nine players ties 2005 for the largest total draftees in the last four years and compares with six in 2003 and five in 2004. The nine players drafted were Wisconsin's tight end Owen Daniels, Michigan's receiver Jason Avant and Indiana's defensive lineman Victor Adeyanju in the fourth round; defensive ends Ron Ninkovich from Purdue and Brent Hawkins from Illinois State in round five; Stanford's defensive tackle Babatunde (O.J.) Oshinowo and Notre Dame's offensive lineman Dan Stephenson in round six; and defensive lineman Fred Evans of Texas State and Northwestern's linebacker Tim McGarigle in the seventh round.

As usual, California, Texas and Florida dominated the draft. California had 13 players drafted in the first three rounds and 33 total, Texas had 12 and 29, and Florida had 12 and 27. Florida actually had the most first rounders with 6, followed by California and Ohio with four each and Texas with three. The totals for the big three are almost identical with their totals from the two preceding years and are consistently far beyond what any other state produces.

Also producing more draftable athletes than Illinois were Ohio and Virginia with 13 total players each and Georgia with 12. Illinois was tied with Alabama and Michigan with 9 players each, although Alabama had six players drafted in the first three rounds and Michigan had 2. Louisiana and Pennsylvania had 8 draftees each; South Carolina, North Carolina, Colorado, and New York all had 7; Mississippi and Oklahoma had 6 each; Indiana had five including four in the first three rounds; Oregon, Tennessee and Nebraska with 4 each; and New Jersey with 2. Overall, 40 states plus Washington, D. C. and Pago Pago produced drafted football players.

Again this year, Tom Lemming's Prep Football Report is used to study the draftees from Illinois and their rankings from high school. Lemming's report is used because he is from Illinois and tends to rank a larger number of players from Illinois than other recruiting "gurus", likely in an effort to get them college scholarships. He also has more frequent access to information about Illinois athletes. No recruiting expert ranks all the top high school players correctly, for a wide variety of reasons, and Lemming makes his share of mistakes. But relative comparisons are still interesting.

Lemming's Summer, 2000 report includes players who utilized a redshirt year and were eligible for the draft in 2006 (a few were mentioned in last year's column since they entered the draft four years after high school). Of those who were drafted this year, Owen Daniels (as a quarterback), O. J. Oshinowo and Dan Stevenson were given a four star ranking (five stars was the highest possible).

Those who were not drafted either last year or this year included five star defensive back Brett Bell (Wisconsin) and four star athletes Brett Basanez (Northwestern), Casey Paus (Washington), Abe Jones (Illinois--track), Kevin Noel (Purdue), Devon Clark, Rod Middleton, Kyle Ealey (Michigan), Rob Needham (Illinois--retired), Lionel Williams (Southern Illinois), Pat McShane, Corey Mays (Notre Dame), and Chuckie Moore. Some of these players had distinguished college careers, but none were drafted.

Looking at Lemming's Summer, 2001 report for players graduating high school in 2002 and completing four years of college in 2006, one finds five Illinois athletes given the highest ranking of five stars. These players were quarterback Chris Pazan, running back J. R. Zwierzinski, receiver Jason Avant, receiver Marquis Johnson, and tight end Michael Kolodziej. Avant was the only one drafted this year after starting for three years at Michigan. Pazan attended Illinois but never lived up to his early hype. Zwierzinski was redshirted and is a reserve linebacker at Penn State, Johnson was not drafted after an undistinguished career at junior college and Texas Tech, and Kolodziej was redshirted and is competing for a starting offensive tackle position at Michigan.

Four star players according to Lemming included Clarence "Bo" Flowers, Mike Duda, Tim Brasic, Derell Jenkins, Tom O'Brien, Cyrus Garrett, Reggie Cribbs, and Scott Moss. Brasic, Garrett, and Moss attended Illinois, but only Brasic remains. Flowers chose professional baseball, and the others have not yet shown signs of making it into the NFL.

Of the nine Illinois players drafted this year, five were not given any ranking whatsoever. Lemming listed 98 Illinois players in his Summer, 2000 book and 121 the following year. Victor Adeyanju was a "diamond in the rough" who present Illinois defensive back coach Curt Mallory found and recruited to Indiana from Chicago Curie. Ron Ninkovich (New Lenox) and Tim McGarigle (Chicago St. Patrick) showed sufficient improvement during their senior seasons to garner scholarship offers from Purdue and Northwestern respectively.

Brent Hawkins is originally from Godfrey in southwestern Illinois. He transferred to Illinois State after a brief stop at Purdue. And Fred Evans had an even more interesting path to the NFL. Matriculating from Chicago Morgan Park high school, he actually walked on at Illinois his freshman year. However, he didn't distinguish himself and transferred to College of DuPage junior college. He graduated and then transferred to Texas State. Obviously, Evans was a late bloomer who eventually became promising enough to get NFL interest, and he had the advantage of playing defensive tackle, always a need position at both the pro and college levels.

Nationally, fifteen Floridians were given five stars by Lemming in his Summer, 2001 report, while California had 12 and Texas enjoyed 8. It is especially interesting to note the positions played by these five star prospects. In Florida, skill position players reined supreme as there were 2 quarterbacks, 3 running backs, five wide receivers including Bears draftee Devin Hester, one defensive lineman, 2 linebackers and 2 defensive backs. California is always known to produce great quarterbacks, so 4 of their 12 five star players were quarterbacks. Their total also included 3 defensive lilnemen. Texas also had three defensive linemen.

Nationally, superstar athletes like Mario Williams, Reggie Bush, and Vince Young were five star athletes on every recruiting guru's list. Even a blind squirrel will find those acorns. But after that, the path to the NFL is strewn with former five star players who couldn't live up to their lofty acclaim. Injuries and academic casualties are always common. A poor work ethic or lack of commitment limits some players.

But probably the majority simply reach the zenith of their potential in high school and can't continue to improve as fast as some others. Recruiting "experts" rarely sense what players have already reached their peak, and late bloomers often get overlooked entirely as recruiting services around the country seem to copy others and continuously rename the same players over and over even if others have shown more ability in their latest high school games.

It is equally difficult for football coaches to project accurately how well athletes will play four and five years into the future. That is why some coaches work closely with the gurus, purchasing their services and trading information. This can lead to special arrangements with some of the less trustworthy "experts", giving those coaches a leg up on recruiting players who have developed close relationships with the gurus. Of course, this can also lead to recruiting mistakes if favored players are not quite as good as advertised.

It may be a mistake to generalize too much from the results of the NFL draft. There are likely as many variables in the development, recruitment and drafting of players as there are players. But we can make some observations about the state of Illinois based on results of the NFL drafts for the past three years.

First of all, while one might expect the populous state of Illinois to have decent representation in the draft each year, it is painfully obvious that Illinois has not produced any true superstars among their draftable players. With no first rounders in the last three years, it is hard not to draw that conclusion. The University of Illinois desperately needs to recruit a few superstars to serve as an anchor for all their role players. The average football player relaxes and plays his best when he trusts a couple superstar teammates to help him out when needed. The UI has needed to look out of state for those special players, with little if any luck.

Also, it seems clear that one must do a great deal of research within all corners of the state to find the "diamonds in the rough" among the thousands of high schoolers who play football in the state. When more than half of the draftees are basically unknowns in high school, finding the ones with the best futures must be a special gift of intuition as well as logic. Coaches must be able to visualize the perfection within and then know how to chip away all the dross that hides the true quality of a player to help his talent emerge.

The state of Illinois produces fewer great quarterbacks, wide receivers, tight ends, running backs, defensive linemen (this year was an extremely rare exception) and defensive backs than some other states. This has been an observable long-term trend with only occasional exceptions and is supported by the NFL draft findings. So the notion that Illinois will be competitive nationally if it recruits primarily within its own state is an invalid one, it appears.

The UI cannot win with offensive linemen and linebackers alone. We must go to the states that produce great skill position players and defensive linemen and outrecruit schools from their regions. This is never an easy assignment. Illinois must defend its state and keep the best players at home whenever possible, but much out-of-state recruiting is absolutely necessary.

And on a personal note, this writer no longer subscribes to any recruiting services because the veracity of their findings is always in doubt. While it can be frustrating to know less about available talent, it is also frustrating to watch top athletes you want go elsewhere to school. It is also frustrating to have high hopes for Illini recruits based on high school rankings and then watch them fail in college.

In the long run, perhaps it is better to hope our football coaches can do a better job of evaluating and projecting talent than the gurus. And it is even better if those coaches can recruit the best ones who can help Illinois win. But even then, it is a crapshoot.

Go Illini!!!


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