I have to admit I had to do a lot of research on this piece because I did not realize how many guys the Illini really had at the highest level of football. Many of these guys are role players for their respective teams, but nonetheless there are several who have made a notable impact in the NFL.
Justin Hardee might’ve had the second-biggest play of his career on Monday night football against the Alex Smith-led Washington Redskins.
Hardee, who had been suiting up for the Saints on special teams and at wide receiver, had not made an interception since his high school years. Looks like a positional switch paid off for him. So far this season, he has the one pick, a blocked punt returned for a touchdown, four tackles, and one reception for 10 yards. It appears the Saints staff really likes what they see from him, and are putting him all over the field.
Clayton Fejedelem might be one of the other big Illini names out there. So far this season as a safety for the Bengals he has amassed 20 tackles along with a forced fumble returned for a touchdown against Indianapolis in Week 1. It should be noted that the touchdown he scored sealed the game in the fourth quarter as the Bengals went on to win 34-23.
Hardy Nickerson, a fellow Bengal, has not had quite the same impact as Fejedelem but has seen a bit of playing time. He was in on the tackle where Fejedelem returned the fumble for a touchdown, and overall he has 24 tackles and one tackle for loss on the season. Nickerson had a season-high five solo tackles and three assists against Baltimore in Week 2.
There are a few receiving threats that have made their way into the league. Matt LaCosse, a tight end for the Broncos, has four catches for 43 yards so far this year. He has stepped up into a larger role after Jake Butt tore his ACL. Malik Turner made his way onto the Seattle Seahawks on the practice sqauad, and at moments to the real team. Geronimo Allison on the other hand, has appeared to have solidified himself with the Green Bay Packers. Allison has played in four games, and has 19 receptions for 289 yards so far as well as a pair of touchdowns, but is currently dealing with an injury.
Most notably, he had this beautiful pass from Aaron Rodgers to begin the comeback against the Bears in Week 1:
Tavon Wilson, a safety for the Lions, has also played in four games and recorded 12 total tackles. Teddy Karras, an offensive lineman for the New England Patriot, has not compiled any statistics this year, but, hey, he won the 2017 Super Bowl!
Now, to the #RushMen. There are so many defensive linemen who attended Illinois and have now found themselves in the NFL in one way or another. After being signed by the Rams in May, Chunky Clements was cut in early September and has not yet found another squad. Dawuane Smoot has been listed as inactive with the Jaguars and has not recorded any statistics. Carroll Phillips, who is now on the Indianapolis Colts, has appeared in three games and recorded three tackles. Jihad Ward is a teammate of Phillips’ in Indianapolis, and has three sacks and four tackles in five games.
The more high-profile defensive lineman are Akeem Spence of the Dolphins, Whitney Mercilus of the Texans, and Corey Liuget of the Chargers. Spence has started in all six games for the Dolphins and 13 tackles, a tackle for loss, and two hits on the quarterback. Mercilus has played in six games, starting in five, for Houston and so far has 13 tackles, a tackle for loss, and three quarterback hits. Liuget has only played in two games this season due to suspension, but has had an impact for the Chargers. He has one and a half sacks along with five tackles, a tackle for loss and two hits on the quarterbacks.
None of them might be Hall of Famers, but there’s certainly a fair share of Illini to continue to keep an eye on in the NFL this season.
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