Not a single Illini went to last weekend's Draft Combine. There weren't any broad jumps, shuttle runs or 40-yard dashes with "Illinois" appearing in the NFL Networks' overlays. And it's like if I'm watching the pride of the Illini (the personified pride, not the band) go snowboarding, grab sweet air and just biff it on the landing -- from '07 to '13, Illinois had a player drafted every year including five 1st-rounders and seven 2nd or 3rd-rounders. We're talking a level of high-quality consistency similar to the first ten Pixar movies (I liked Cars). That's a stretch of draft success that few normal schools ever see and it's likely that we won't again for decades.
We now enter a second year without any true draft prospects. Last year, LB Jonathan Brown and WR Ryan Lankford were deemed unworthy to be drafted and both signed undrafted free agent contracts in the summer, Brown with the Cardinals and Lankford with the Colts. Brown was arguably the best player on the the 2013 Illini defense, which equates to being the best raisin in the box -- they were the 112th ranked defense in the nation that year. He's already moved on from the Cardinals, now making his way on the reserve squad of the Chicago Bears (his number's 48).
Entering the 2014, there were a few players that might deserve a late look for an NFL team. Earnest Thomas III at STAR (LB/Safety combo) had the size for the NFL and displayed promising talent during his junior year, but failed to make an impact on gameday. There was also two or three O-linemen who scouts might find interesting but left guard Michael Heitz and center Alex Hill were part of one of the weakest units on the team. Left tackle Simon Cvijanovic had the majority of his season stolen from him by the injury fairy, which may be the biggest travesty for any Illini in years if you think about it. He really did have a chance to make it. I don't know if he's going to try for an undrafted contract or not, but he would be a decent backup for someone. So far, the actual best prospect to get drafted from Illinois is the punter, Justin DuVernois, but even that isn't guaranteed. The last five drafts have averaged 1.8 punters per year, and there's, like, 4 or 5 guys already perceived to be better than DuVer. (I'll admit, I just went down a punter-related internet rabbit hole.)
And that's to say nothing about seniors like Donovonn Young, Austin Teitsma, DeJazz Woods, Jon Davis, Matt LaCosse, Abe Cajuste, Reilly O'Toole or several others who played such an important part in the Quest for 6-6. Guys that turned our sad-sack 3-3 (0-2) just-lost-to-Purdue Fighting Illini into the fascinatingly resilient, bowl-bound, beat-the-hell-out-of-Northwestern Fighting Illini aren't even good enough for a NFL scouting report.
But for now it seems we'll have to rely on hope to get us through until 2016. Looking at seniors alone, there are some good options for next season but most of it still depends on how they play -- not a single one is clear-cut NFL material. On defense, Mason Monheim might be a little too small and V'Angelo Bentley may be too suspect in man-to-man coverage, but if Jihad Ward becomes a
merciless Mercilus sack machine, then he's my best bet to get drafted. On offense, there's Josh Ferguson who, to me, is on the wrong side of the fence -- he's not necessarily big enough (although he might add weight this offseason) but I think his talents could be used out of the backfield in a West Coast offense. And there's Ted Karras, a 6-4, 310 guard with NFL talent in his blood, with the second best chance to be drafted from this team.
After so many years of watching Zook's recruits be picked in the 1st round, it's become difficult to endure this drought of Zook's recruits not being picked at all. (2016 will be the first year with any non-JUCO seniors from a Beckman class.) There won't be any Illini on the stage in 2015, but there's hope for the future.