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Illini in the Pros: Spring Football Edition

Some familiar former Illini are still playing professionally outside the NFL

USFL: Philadelphia Stars vs Michigan Panthers Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

The Super Bowl is over and another football season is in the books. Now much of the professional and college football worlds will turn their attention to the NFL Draft, but there’s still plenty of actual football that will be just getting started in the spring. Not surprisingly, many former Illinois Fighting Illini football players are making an impact in a number of these spring/summer football leagues.

Just like how former Illini basketball players Kofi Cockburn and Trent Frazier have inked deals to play professionally in other leagues outside of the NBA, former Illini football players have signed on to play with teams in the XFL, USFL, CFL, and beyond. Let’s take a look at some of those players and see how they’re doing.

Geronimo Allison - Vegas Vipers (XFL)

XFL: Vegas Vipers at Arlington Renegades Raymond Carlin III-USA TODAY Sports

After a long and successful NFL career with the Green Bay Packers, Geronimo Allison has now decided to join up with the Vegas Vipers of the XFL for their inaugural season in Las Vegas. Allison is a starting wide receiver for the Vipers, and he’s caught 10 passes for 96 yards in the 2023 season.

The Vipers have had some inconsistency at quarterback, as they’ve alternated between Allison’s former Packers teammate Brett Hundley and former Texas A&M-Commerce quarterback Luis Perez. That inconsistency certainly hasn’t helped Allison, and has likely contributed to the Vipers’ 1-5 record in the XFL.

Reggie Corbin - Michigan Panthers (USFL)

USFL Week Ten - Michigan Panthers v Pittsburgh Maulers Photo by Jamie Squire/USFL/Getty Images

After a brief stint in the Canadian Football League (CFL), Corbin wound up playing for the Michigan Panthers of the USFL last season. Over the course of the 8 games that he started for the Panthers, Corbin rushed for 519 yards and 2 touchdowns in 2022, while also adding 296 kickoff return yards and 51 receiving yards for a total of 866 all-purpose yards on the year.

Corbin’s 519 rushing yards were good for 4th-best in the USFL last season, which helped him to earn All-USFL honors. His 88-yard run against the Philadelphia Stars is still the longest run in USFL history. As a bright spot during his college days in an otherwise gloomy few years in Champaign, Reggie Corbin’s highlight reel brings back some great memories.

Corbin is now teammates with former Illini defensive lineman Jamal Milan, who joined the Panthers for this upcoming season. Linebacker Khalan Tolson will also suit up for the USFL’s Houston Gamblers this year, while Alex Palczewski was drafted by the New Orleans Breakers but has not signed with them.

Blake Hayes - Hamilton Tiger-Cats (CFL)

Hamilton Tiger-Cats v Montreal Alouettes Photo by John E. Sokolowski/Getty Images

Former Illinois punter and native Australian Blake Hayes finds himself north of the border this spring playing for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the CFL. Hayes booted the ball 6 times in the Tiger-Cats’ regular season matchup at Ottawa and 6 more times in a playoff matchup against the Montreal Alouettes.

Hayes’ longest punt on the season was a 55-yarder in the East Semi-Final game against Montreal, while his average during the season was 46.3 yards per punt.

Hugh Thornton - Calgary Stampeders (CFL)

Calgary Stampeders v Saskatchewan Roughriders Photo by Brent Just/Getty Images

After being drafted in the third round by the Indianapolis Colts in 2013, Hugh Thornton spent much of the next three seasons as a fixture on their offensive line. The one-time Ron Zook recruit then briefly signed with the Atlanta Falcons in 2017, but announced his retirement before the start of that season.

Thornton worked out with the Washington Commanders in 2019, but was ultimately waived before the season began. After a few years off from football, the now 31-year old Thornton played his first season in the CFL last year with the Calgary Stampeders. He started in 4 regular season games at offensive tackle, and also made his playoff debut in the Western Semi-Final game. Thornton will return to the Stampeders for this upcoming season.

Isaiah Gay - BC Lions (CFL)

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 09 Wisconsin at Illinois Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Isaiah Gay was a mainstay in Bret Bielema’s first defensive unit in Champaign, and now he’s going to be suiting up for the BC Lions of the CFL. Gay played for the Montreal Alouettes last season, and appeared in one game against Winnipeg. The 23-year old will look to make an impact this year in Vancouver alongside former First-Team All-ACC pass rusher and Wake Forest Demon Deacon Miles Fox.

Nolan Bernat - Gillette Mustangs (Champions Indoor Football League)

NCAA Football: Western Illinois at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Former Illini walk-on defensive back Nolan Bernat is currently playing indoor football for the Gillette Mustangs in Wyoming. After a season in Europe with the Helsinki Roosters of the Vaahteraliiga in Finland, Bernat decided to come home to the US and sign with the Gillette Mustangs of the Champions Indoor Football (CIF) League.

The CIF season is currently underway, and in two games Bernat has racked up 7.5 total tackles, including 1.0 TFLs, along with 2 interceptions and 3 passes defended. Check out one of his interceptions here:

The games in these leagues might not have the glamor or pageantry associated with Saturdays or Sundays in the fall, but the intensity is all there regardless. Many of the games are broadcast on either basic cable or YouTube, so it’s never difficult to see these Illini football alumni in action. Check them out if you have a chance and show the guys some love!