The Illiniois Fighting Illini haven’t had their best seasons the last few years. That much is certain. But shockingly, it wasn’t because of a dearth of talent, thanks to former coach Ron Zook. This much is evident through the NFL Draft. 19 Illini players have been drafted over the past six years, including four first-rounders and four second-rounders — not too shabby for a team that’s 24-40 since 2008.
What about this year? Is the cupboard still full from the Zook days? Well, it may not be up to 2012 standards (two first-rounders and two second-rounders), but Champagne has seen much less talented teams.
The Illini have a few guys that are going to be competing this fall to increase their draft stock, and most of them are actually underclassmen who could be departing early (especially if there’s another 2-10 debacle like last year).
One of those guys is OT Simon Cvijonavic, who started for the first time last year as a sophomore. He’s not ever going to be a blindside protector in the NFL, but he’s an intriguing run blocker who could very easily find a home on the right side. At the very worst, he could get pushed inside and play guard in a power scheme. Remember, he’s only a junior, so he’ll get better with more experience.
QB Nathan Scheelhaase at one time looked like miracle worker, but has struggled to regain his consistency ever since offensive coordinator Paul Petrino left. He’s a good athlete though, and with a strong senior year, he could really improve his stock.
Running back Donovonn Young and tight end Jon Davis are two more underclassmen that are looking to break out this season. Young is a complete back at 5-foot 11, 220-pounds, one who can run inside and out, and also possesses excellent hands out of the backfield. He’s still raw, though, and is still figuring out the smaller intricacies of the game.
Davis is a super athlete and can play multiple positions. He’s lined up at running back, H-back, tight end and wide receiver. At 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, he actually reminds me of a young Owen Daniels, the tight end for the Houston Texans.
But the star of the Illini and by far the biggest draft prospect, is outside linebacker Jonathan Brown. Granted, he’s coming back from a shoulder injury that derailed him the last three games of the 2012 season, but he’s a physical beast when healthy. Brown is one of my favorite OLB prospects for the 2014 draft class because of how well he can cover.
Not only that, but at 6-foot 1, 235 pounds, he can also lay the wood in the ground game, giving him the versatility to play both SAM and WILL ‘backer positions in a 4-3. He’d be a terrific fit in a cover-2, where his coverage abilities are reminiscent of Minnesota Vikings OLB Chad Greenway.
All in all, it’s not a bad group of guys the Illini could be sending pro this year. It really comes down to whether the underclassmen stay or go, and whether Brown returns to form after his injury.