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Illini alums Ward, Hardee have new NFL homes

More movement this offseason.

Wild Card Round - Baltimore Ravens v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The NFL offseason is off and running, for better or for worse... worse if you’re one of many Illini fans who also happen to be Chicago Bears fans. That’s neither here nor there.

Yesterday brought some Dawuane Smoot news. He’s re-signing with the team that drafted him, the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Jihad Ward is a Jacksonville Jaguar

Who else joins Dawuane Smoot in Duuuval next season? The former Illini player and Baltimore Ravens defensive end, Jihad Ward. That’s right. The two former Illini teammates who played together along the defensive line at Illinois in 2014 and ‘15 now find themselves together again in the pros.

Ward leaving the Ravens is no surprise. He was a healthy scratch in a handful of games this season, despite putting up some pretty nice stats in limited time on the field:

Like his teammate Smoot, the 6-foot-5, 287-pound defensive lineman can be used in multiple defensive schemes up front. The Jaguars are very much in rebuild mode with a new head coach and a new quarterback taking charge. Two former Illini (plus an Illini who happens to own the Jaguars in Shad Khan) will be part of that turnaround in 2021.

Justin Hardee is a New York Jet

One of the NFL’s best special teams players and a solid backup cornerback (who played wide receiver at Illinois) will be joining the New York Jets in 2021. The 3-year deal is well earned for a player who’s made a name for himself as the league’s best gunner in the punt game.

Any Jets fan will tell you that the special teams unit in New York was awful last year. Hardee brings instant leadership and credibility to a new coaching staff and struggling team looking to revamp a sense of toughness in that phase of the game.

Justin Hardee, Jihad Ward and Dawuane Smoot — we’ll be watching and supporting you guys throughout the NFL season! ILL!