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Illinois is developing studs — the 2023 Draft class proves it

What does this draft mean for the Illini?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL NOV 19 Illinois at Michigan Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

For years, the debate has raged on among Illini fans and media members alike.

It’s a chicken vs. egg debate, really.

Does acquiring NFL talent require improved recruiting, or does improved recruiting bring forth NFL talent?

These questions were posed frequently during the Zook/Cubit/Smith eras in Champaign. Those eras saw Illini NFL Draft selections become fewer and farther between than during the Ron Zook era.

Say what you will about Zook, but he and his staff brought plenty of legit, no-doubt NFL talent to the Illini. It was fun watching players like Vontae Davis, Rashard Mendenhall, Corey Liuget and Whitney Mercilus crush it on Sundays for years.

Sure, Nick Allegretti and Ted Karras have been key players on some really good teams. Clayton Fejedelem, Justin Hardee, Akeem Spence, Mikel Leshoure, Jeff Allen, Taon Wilson and Matt Lacosse are among several other Illini players who have had NFL careers during those years.

But the Illini’s lack of ability to consistently recruit and develop NFL-caliber players has been a black cloud over the program for the past decade.

Give the Lovie Smith regime its recruiting flowers.

Redbox Bowl - California v Illinois Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Look, it’s no secret that the Lovie Smith era wasn’t a smashing success in the win column. It was full of questionable coaching staff decisions, inconsistent quarterback play, and reliance on the Transfer Portal to cover up prep recruiting malaise.

But maybe, just maybe, there was more talent recruited and signed by Lovie Smith and company.

The 2023 draft will be a coronation of sorts. This will be the Lovie draft. He gifted his former NFL team the first overall pick in the draft. And he and his staff provided multiple no-doubt draft picks for the Illini.

Ignoring the off-the-field stuff, Nate Hobbs has been a success in the NFL. He was a somewhat unheralded recruit out of Louisville. But he now represents the first wave of Illinois as the new DBU.

Kerby Joseph is on the Lions and still being a ballhawking playmaker. He outlasted top-5 pick Jeff Okudah. And yes, one can argue that Kerby was truly coached up to his potential by Ryan Walters and Bret Bielema. Fair enough. But that was a good scouting evaluation by Lovie Smith and his staff.

Bret Bielema really meant it when he said Illinois is a player development program.

When Bret Bielema took the helm of the Illini program, he made sure to drive home the point that Illinois would recruit the state of Illinois and develop players at a high level. So far, Coach B has kept his word. While Lovie Smith’s staff deserves boatloads of credit for bringing in lots of moldable clay, the current staff has done a marvelous job preparing those players for the next level.

Wyoming v Illinois Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Both Lovie and Bret joined Illinois from the NFL. But Bielema is a college coach at his core with the track record of Big Ten success to prove it. And the polish that this staff helped put on players who were recruited by the prior regime can’t be overstated.

It’s why the 2023 draft could see as many as six Illinois players taken. And of those six, four of them are absolute locks. So let’s dig into the possibilities.

Devon Witherspoon - CB

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 04 UTSA at Illinois Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Devon Witherspoon didn’t disappoint in his final season with the Illini. He showed out as a consensus All-American. He garnered a 92.5 PFF grade and led the nation in passer rating allowed with a ridiculous 25.3.

And to think, he was enrolled at a junior college when the Illini got his NLI. Once Illinois assistant Keynodo Hudson knew Witherspoon was a full academic qualifier, the Illini staff pounced. And the feisty Floridian cracked the rotation as a true freshman, garnering three starts.

He is a true boundary corner who can play man coverage on an island. Some scouts prefer Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez for his length. Others prefer Penn State’s Joey Porter Jr. for his athleticism and bloodlines. But there is an argument to be made that ‘Spoon is the best available corner in the draft.

Witherspoon has a chance to be Illinois’ first top-ten pick since the Kevin Hardy-Simeon Rice back-to-back selections in 1996.

Projection: #7 - Las Vegas Raiders

The Raiders definitely need help on the perimeter. With former Illini Nate Hobbs having a solid career at nickel, Witherspoon could step right in and start in a division that has Justin Herbert, Russell Wilson, and….oh, right (checks notes) Patrick Mahomes. Las Vegas needs all the help it can get.

Jartavius “Quan” Martin - DB

NFL: MAR 02 Scouting Combine Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Martin had a productive final season with the Illini. As a leader of the best secondary in the nation, Martin defended 11 passes, picked off three, and had 51 solo tackles. Against Wyoming, he was a human stick of dynamite and was named national defensive player of the week for Week Zero.

Martin brings a full package of range, speed, fluidity, and ruthlessness. He has the build and experience to step in as a day-one starter at Nickel or as a safety. His versatility and freakish combine performance will likely see him coming off the board on day two of the draft.

Projection: #62 - Philadelphia Eagles

Philly’s defense got absolutely gutted in free agency. And while they did a decent job of replacing some of their starters, Terell Edmunds signed a one-year deal. So they clearly need at least one longer-term replacement at safety/nickel. Martin could slot in and immediately give Minkah Fitzpatrick some real help. He’s tailor-made to make an immediate contribution and bring just the kind of nastiness in the secondary that Eagles fans love.

Sydney Brown - Safety

NFL Combine Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The third of the three Illinois defensive backs who will be drafted this week is the hard-hitting, playmaking, great hair-having, team-leading, in-the-box human weapon Sydney Brown.

Syd had a decorated career in orange and blue and will be a no-doubt NFL safety. Every Illini fan is familiar with his leadership qualities. Current Illinois safety Matthew Bailey received high praise when coaches called him “Syd 2.0.” High praise when you’re compared to a guy who picked six passes last season.

There will no doubt be stories ready about the Brown twins and their journey from Canada to the NFL. Be prepared to tear up.

Despite being more jacked than the next 25 people you know (unless you know Gabe Jacas), Brown’s size may limit his positional flexibility. He’s got good speed (4.47 40-yard dash time) and is a willing tackler, but he may not be able to cover bigger receivers on deeper throws. We’ve seen his ability to high point and play center field in the Big Ten, but there are questions about whether he can carry that same talent to the NFL.

But we all saw the Northwestern game. It was a glorious mashup of bone-shaking hits and NFL-level ball skills. Combine that with his leadership qualities, charisma, and work ethic, and you’ve got yourself a future starting strong safety.

Projection: #85 - Los Angeles Chargers

The Chargers are a different team when Derwin James is on the field. He needs some help back there. Again, being in the same division as the baddest man on the planet means you need to load up on secondary help. Sydney Brown is an electric playmaker with the kind of game-flipping skill that reminds me of Tyrann Mathieu. He’d be a great addition to a perpetually underachieving Chargers defense that has plenty of “show muscles” but isn’t built to move and hit.

Chase Brown - Running Back

It’s difficult to come up with new superlatives for Chase Brown. He’s quite simply one of the greatest Illini football players of all-time. He put up nearly 3,000 all-purpose yards over the past two seasons. In 2021, he eclipsed 1,000 yards while in a significant timeshare with true freshman Josh McCray.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: FEB 01 Reese’s Senior Bowl Practice Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As a college player, Chase was difficult to stop once he got downhill. And he’ll likely count on that jaw-dropping power running ability to make a name for himself.

We know the flaws. Sure, he struggled occasionally in pass coverage. He’s a good but not Bijan-level receiver. And he doesn’t have the breakaway speed that some faster backs possess.

But he’s a complete back who has NFL starter upside. He’s likely to go on day three of the draft. A team that drafts him will know what it’s getting in terms of productivity, durability, consistency, and maturity. Chase embraced a starring role in Champaign after starting his college career at Western Michigan. Now, he only has one challenge left.

Projection: #157 - Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens are stubbornly going to run the ball. Whether it’s with their quarterback or their large committee of running backs, Baltimore plays cold-weather ball all year round. Brown would join a crowded running back room in Baltimore with every chance to rise to the top of the depth chart. If he continues to work on his pass protection ability, he could be a multi-year starter in the NFL.

Honorable Mentions

Alex Palczewski - Palcho has a chance to go late on day three. Bielema will rave about him to any coach who calls with questions. His leadership and perseverance through the lean years will not be forgotten. Even if he isn’t drafted, he has a chance of caching on as a UDFA.

Luke Ford - I am confident he won’t be drafted. But as a blocking tight end with some athletic upside, he may get a look in camp. Although, I hear WWE could use some star power now…

Calvin Avery - He may have played his way into a 7th round/Immediate UDFA with an excellent season alongside the Law Firm of Newton and Randolph. His combination of mass and agility could make him an intriguing practice squad prospect as a 0-technique in a 3-4 scheme.

Kendall Smith - He has the physical makeup and productivity of a special teams dog. He’s also demonstrated enough ball skills to earn a camp invite. He could make a good dime package DB for a team in need of more turnover production.

Tommy DeVito - He’ll be an early UDFA signee for some team. New England would make sense because of Bielema and Belichick’s relationship and Belichick’s alleged hatred of Mac Jones. I’m not saying he’ll ever be a starter, but he showed remarkable efficiency and accuracy last season. Perhaps Bill O’Brien can unlock another level.

Isaac Darkangelo - His last name is too cool to never appear on the back of an NFL jersey. Also, he’s an excellent tackler with relentless pursuit. He is another prospective special teams ace with Malcolm Rodriguez-level Cinderella story vibes.