By Blake Landa
The Fighting Illini have produced a multitude of players that have gone on from Champaign-Urbana to play in the big leagues of the NFL. These players made a name for themselves as well as showed the country that the Illini are capable of creating some of the finest football players this side of the Mississippi. Legends like running back Red Grange and Dick Butkus (who recently received his own statue outside of the Henry Dale and Betty Smith Football Center) were some of the old school former Illini players that would go on to the NFL, but this year it is looking like there will be a total of 10 former Illini who will be on the 53-man starting rosters as the league kicks off later tonight with the first game of the season between the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans. Let’s take a look at who these 10 players are and what teams colors they will be representing now that they have put away the orange and blue.
We’ll begin with a player who during their rookie season was able to walk away with a Super Bowl ring for their rookie season (pretty, pretty good), Nick Allegretti. Allegretti received a ring with the Kansas City Chiefs for playing backup guard and he will also have a presence on special teams for this season, which means we will probably get a chance to see him play later tonight in the league opener.
The next player that we are likely to see in tonight’s matchup is Houston Texans outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus. Drafted to the league in the first round of the 2012 draft by the Houston Texans, Mercilus came to life last season and is sure to be a force to be reckoned with this season.
Allegretti won’t be the only former Illini on the field this season who has their own Super Bowl ring. Miami Dolphin’s center Ted Karras already has two of his own back from when he was playing with the New England Patriots. Karras signed a one-year deal this offseason to join Miami and become their leading center as well as an offensive captain.
Speaking of the Miami Dolphins, safety Clayton Fejedelem, drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in 2016, signed a contract in the offseason to take his talents down to South Beach. Fejedelem was also named special teams captain, meaning the Illini will be well represented in the leadership department for the Phins.
Since we are talking about Florida football teams, I think it is only fair that we head up north to the panhandle where Dawuane Smoot will be entering the defensive end rotation for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Smoot has played all four years for Jacksonville ever since being drafted by them in 2016. The Jags owner, Shahid Khan, is also an alum of the University of Illinois.
Smoot isn’t the only former Illini who will be playing defensive end this year. The Baltimore Ravens acquired Jihad Ward with a one-year deal this season. Ward has travelled all around the NFL ever since being drafted by the Oakland Raiders in 2016, playing with the Cowboys and the Colts until finally settling into Baltimore this year.
The Green Bay Packers may have made a mistake when they released wide receiver Malik Turner in the offseason, but the Dallas Cowboys were more than willing to pick him up and toss him on their roster. Originally signed as an undrafted free agent by the Seattle Seahawks in 2018, Turner will be taking the field for the Boys this season.
Just under 125 miles away from Champaign-Urbana, Tavon Wilson will be suiting up for the Indianapolis Colts his season. Originally drafted by the New England Patriots in the 2nd round of the 2012 draft, Wilson joined the Colts this season as a backup safety and a member of the special teams.
Del’Shawn Phillips started his career in 2019 as an undrafted free agent with the Atlanta Falcons but has made his way up the country to become a member of the Buffalo Bills as a backup linebacker as well as a member of the special teams.
Finally, our number 10 former Illini player in the NFL this season is cornerback Justin Hardee for the New Orleans Saints. Originally signed by the Houston Texans in 2017 as an undrafted free agent, Hardee will be playing as a backup cornerback as well as a key figure on the special teams for the Saints this season.
There we have it, our 10 former Illini who will be playing in the NFL this season (hoping that the season isn’t cut short due to COVID). I wish all of them the best of luck and I hope that they always remember where their college football roots began.
By Blake Landa