The college football season is approaching its home stretch. The Fighting Illini sit at 4-5, needing to win at least two of their final three games in the regular season to get a bowl game, and somehow staying alive in the Big Ten West race after beating Maryland and Minnesota but losing to Wisconsin in agonizing fashion, preventing them from controlling their own destiny.
Some of Illinois’ players are trying to wow scouts as the season comes to a close; nothing increases your draft stock like successful game reps on film. So what do we project when it comes to Illinois’s top prospects?
DT Jer’Zhan Newton
Current Projection: First Round Pick, Top 20 pick
While the defense hasn’t been nearly as good as last season, it has still mostly been good, outside of the Kansas and Purdue games. And Johnny Newton has easily been the main reason why. He dominated Penn State on national television, grabbing the eyes of many scouts and NFL draft analysts. Penn State has an elite OL with multiple projected top picks, and he destroyed them on almost every rep.
In the last two halves he’s played, the Illinois defense has completely shut down both Wisconsin and Minnesota. He has 10 sacks and 20 TFL combined the last two seasons, and is one of PFF’s highest rated players this season. PFF had him going 14th overall, CBS Sports had him going 6th overall, and USA Today had him going 18th overall.
A lot can change between now and April, but it’s safe to assume Newton will mark back to back seasons of Illinois having a player go day 1 of the NFL draft.
DT Keith Randolph
Current Projection: Third Round Pick
The Law Firm could see both guys picked early in the draft. Randolph has dealt with some injuries that may have dropped his stock a little, but he remains a dominant presence when healthy. Before his injury, he led all DTs in tackles.
He also had an impressive performance against Penn State, as well as dominating Toledo and FAU.
He just eats up blockers very well to let Newton do his thing. He could be someone Illinois tries to sway back with NIL money, but he likely will get picked in the mid-rounds.
WR Isaiah Williams
Current Projection: Fourth Round Pick
Williams also could be someone swayed by NIL, but he has been a very good player this season. He used to be somewhat one-dimensional, only catching short passes and being a YAC guy. This season, he has added more possession receiving and deep ball receiving abilities, on top of the YAC ability.
He had 82 receptions for 715 yards last season; this year, he leads the Big Ten with 59 receptions for 693 yards. 1,000 yards is certainly possible if Illinois gets a bowl game. While his size will limit him to a slot role in the NFL, his speed and YAC ability, coupled with some wildcat skills and acceleration to take the top off a defense, will get him picked early on day 3.
OL Julian Pearl
Current Projection: Fourth Round Pick
The Illini OL has struggled quite a bit this season, but I wouldn’t blame Julian Pearl. He’s mostly held it down at LT. He probably will get another All-Big Ten honorable mention this season. Bret Bielema consistently produces quality offensive linemen.
Alex Palczewski and Pihlstrom both got picked up and remain on rosters last season, and Doug Kramer the year before. Pearl, with his abilities in run blocking and in dealing with bull rushers, will get his chance.
CB Tahveon Nicholson
Current Projection: Fifth Round Pick
Nicholson hasn’t been as good as he was last season. To be fair, it would be hard to expect him to be after the other four secondary starters went to the NFL, and after both starting safeties suffered season ending injuries. Still, you expect better from the veteran CB.
His stock has dropped enough to where he could definitely come back for one more season. If not, his tape from 2022 before his injury serves as a reminder of what he is capable of, a shdowing CB with good size.
OL Isaiah Adams
Current Projection: Sixth Round Pick
Adams has shifted from LG to RT this season, and has played a little worse than he did in 2022. Still, he was very good in 2022, and he has the intangibles to be a solid offensive lineman in the NFL. Adams is somewhat raw and stiff in pass protection, but he is great zone run blocker.
He doesn’t have as good size as Pearl, but it’s still good enough to get drafted.