Here at the midpoint of the season, the Illinois Fighting Illini are already putting even the most optimistic of preseason predictions to shame. As unreal as it would’ve seemed less than two short months ago, the Illini are ranked No. 18 in the AP Poll and are widely acknowledged as being the favorites to win the Big Ten West Division after defeating Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota in consecutive weeks.
Who knows what this year holds in store for the team. A Rose Bowl berth? A Big Ten Championship? A 10-win season for just the second time this century?
Often lost on fans among the well-deserved team accolades are the countless individual performances that got Illinois to where it is today. NFL coaches and scouts, on the other hand, are primarily focused on the individual players, and are no doubt honing in on a few of the Illini heroes as potential assets at the next level.
Here during the bye week, let’s take a look at who on offense is doing the most to build their stock ahead the 2023 NFL Draft.
It’s been so, so long since Illinois has had an NFL-caliber quarterback. But Tommy Devito may be in a position to make the jump to the professional level, since he’s demonstrated a high degree of accuracy when throwing the ball and a willingness to move the ball on the ground when needed or when the pocket collapses. He’s the type of complete package that the Illini haven’t had at quarterback since Nathan Scheelhaase in the Zook-Beckman years.
Devito’s stat line is already impressive even just halfway through the season: 1,415 passing yards for 10 touchdowns against just 2 interceptions. His completion percentage (70.4%), combined with his low number of interceptions, shows that he has patience in the pocket and knows when to throw the ball away to avoid a turnover. On the ground, Devito has 51 rushing yards and 4 additional touchdowns.
Accuracy, pocket awareness, sound decision-making, and the ability to be a threat on the ground are all attributes that NFL scouts look for, and Devito has demonstrated each of those skills against high quality competition. Digging even deeper, Devito’s intangibles also came through in a big way last week, as he fought through injury to put up an NFL-level performance and lead his team to victory.
Top Illini Week 7 PFF Grades vs. Minnesota (min. 10 snaps)— The Field Pass (@TheFieldPass) October 16, 2022
91.8 – QB Tommy DeVito
80.4 – S Quan Martin
79.3 – ILB Tarique Barnes
76.6 – S Kendall Smith
76.4 – RB Chase Brown
75.7 – DT Johnny Newton
73.7 – OLB Seth Coleman
73.3 – C Alex Pihlstrom
72.2 – CB Devon Witherspoon pic.twitter.com/csfcyZzUBe
What’s there to say that hasn’t already been said? As the nation’s leading rusher for most of the season and Illinois’ first legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate in decades, Chase Brown has worked his way to being an almost surefire draft pick in 2023.
His national-level Heisman detractors will point to his high usage rate in Bielema’s run-first offense as a reason why he’s not really up to par with other elite running backs like Blake Corum. But to many NFL teams, his durability is one of his best attributes. Getting through 192 rushing touches and 15 receptions so far this season with no serious injuries is an accomplishment in itself, and it bodes well for his ability to play as an every-down back in a 17-game NFL season.
Looking closer at his stat lines further dispels the myth that his success this season is driven mostly by volume. After all, he leads the nation in rushes of 10 yards or more (33 - next closest player has 24) as well as rush yards after contact (619). Adding his 107 receiving yards to his rushing total also makes him the national leader in all-purpose yardage (1,166), which is vital in the largely pass-first professional game.
Needless to say, it’s clear that he’s much more than just a product of the offense Illinois runs. He can make people miss with his superior vision and patience, while also hurting defenses as a receiver out of the backfield when needed.
The four other starters on the 2018 Illinois offensive line (Nick Allegretti, Kendrick Green, Doug Kramer, and Vederian Lowe) are all on NFL rosters, and Palczewski will undoubtedly join them next season. If we’re being honest, Alex Paczewski could’ve probably been drafted at the end of last season too. But taking an extra year in college allows him to prove that his nagging injury concerns are behind him, which in turn could net him a much higher draft pick (and more lucrative rookie contract) in 2023.
At 6-foot-6 and 315 pounds, Palczewski has the ideal frame and size for an NFL offensive lineman. Appropriately, PFF has him graded as the 6th-best tackle in the nation at the midpoint of this season, up from being the 35th-best tackle prospect at the end of last year. Being the all-time Big Ten leader in games started and a two-time team captain doesn’t hurt the intangibles either.
Palczewski can run block effectively in space, and pick up different defensive looks quickly while pass blocking, as demonstrated by former Illini great Martin O’Donnell.
89 pin, 63 pull. Nice job by 13 coming into seal and 72 getting up to play side LB pic.twitter.com/6w4OZYUngO— Martin O'Donnell (@MartinOD64) October 3, 2022
Really liked this play call. Shifted the 4 guys at the top of screen pre-snap. Watch the OL sort out the stunt C, RG, RT. Everyone ends up on defender. 3 does a great job weaving his way through. pic.twitter.com/yqeUVCBKqV— Martin O'Donnell (@MartinOD64) October 3, 2022
He may not be lighting up the stat sheet this season, but I’d be surprised if Luke Ford doesn’t at least get a training camp invite from an NFL team after this season. His elite measurables could potentially land him a spot as a blocking tight end, H-back, or perhaps even fullback at the next level.
The senior center is another Illini offensive lineman who could find a role on an NFL roster. A strong finish for Pihlstrom and the Illinois offense as a whole could draw attention to his role at the heart of the explosive Illini run game.
As exciting as the draft possibilities are for the Illini offense, the star-studded defense has even more potential to send players to the pros. Next time, we’ll discuss several Illini who could be some of the first players off the board in 2023 on the defensive side of the ball.