Week 1 of the NFL season is in the books. Here’s how your Illinois Fighting Illini Football alums faired in the kickoff to the 2020 season.
Jihad Ward, defensive end: Ward is the 2nd string left side defensive end behind starter Derek Wolfe. Wolfe had 7.0 sacks a season ago, and this week Ward had 4 tackles and 2 assisted tackles in Baltimore’s home blowout win versus the Cleveland Browns.
Del’Shawn Phillips, linebacker: Phillips was an excellent linebacker for the Illini. The un-drafted player is a backup weak side linebacker to tackling machine starter Matt Milano formerly of Boston College. Phillips played, but ended up injuring his quad and did not return in the Bills home opener against the New York Jets.
Malik Turner, wide receiver/special teams: Malik Turner was a great receiver back in his Illinois days, and he now finds himself on his second NFL team after spending his first two seasons with the Seattle Seahawks. The Cowboys are pretty loaded at the wide receiver position with Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and Oklahoma rookie Ceedee Lamb all expected to have significantly more targets than Turner this season. In Week 1 at the LA Rams on Sunday Night Football, Turner recorded no stats.
Whitney Mercilus, outside linebacker: Who’s the best Illinois player currently in the NFL? Easy. That’s Whitney Mercilus, who signed a massive contract extension to stay in Houston last December. The Texans were part of the NFL’s Thursday Night opener against the Kansas City Chiefs, and in that game Mercilus was held to 3 tackles in a loss.
Tavon Wilson, safety: By NFL standards, Tavon Wilson is an old man these days. Wilson will serve as the backup strong safety to rookie Khari Willis of Michigan State. In Indy’s opener at the Jacksonville Jaguars, Wilson did not record any stats.
Dawuane Smoot, defensive end: Oozing with talent and extremely explosive off of the edge, Smoot is poised for a monster 2020 season, even if that’s with the lowly Jaguars. With Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue out of the picture, the proof is in the pudding that the Jags believe in Smoot and his ability to take the next step in his fourth NFL season. Against Indy, Smoot was held tackle-less but did have a QB hit in the game.
Kansas City Chiefs:
Nick Allegretti, guard: An Illini with a Super Bowl ring? Yes! Allegretti is backup guard (and he can also play center) for an offensive line that protects the NFL’s face in Pat Mahomes. Allegretti is a nice backup and in a great situation playing for offensive guru Andy Reid.
Ted Karras, center: A former Illini with NFL bloodlines, Karras is a team captain and is the starting center for the Miami Dolphins. He’ll be blocking for Ryan Fitzpatrick and eventually rookie Tua Tagovailoa in 2020. Karras captained the Miami Dolphins in a road loss to the New England Patriots.
Clayton Fejedelem, safety/special teams: Some dudes are just football players. They’re good, and coaches will figure out how to get them on the field. Fejedelum is one of those guys with a nose for the football, primarily captaining the special teams unit. He does appear some on defense. He was held to no defensive stats in the game against the ‘Pats.
New Orleans Saints:
Justin Hardee, cornerback/special teams: Hardee is listed as the Saints’ third string cornerback, capable of playing on either side of the field. Make no mistake, he’s on the roster because of his special teams athleticism. He’s a great tackler, punt blocker and an important asset to this Super Bowl contender.
Against the Tom Brady led Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Hardee recorded a tackle on defense and once again was sensational on special teams. Need proof?
Justin Hardee blows up Jaydon Mickens pic.twitter.com/glepXKn1tO— Slightly Biased (@BiasedSlightly) September 13, 2020
Practice Squad guys:
Clearly did not play this past weekend, but both kicker Chase McLaughlin and linebacker Hardy Nickerson are on the Minnesota Vikings.
*Just a reminder, Detroit Lions wide receiver Geronimo Allison and New England Patriots tight end Matt LaCosse opted out of the 2020 season because of COVID-19.