Illinois Fighting Illini Top NFL Prospects for 2012 and Beyond


Illinois doesn’t always have a good regular season record, and this past year, inconsistency was somewhat expected with young quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase at the helm, but they still produce fantastic athletes seemingly every year, and guys who really intrigue NFL scouts with their size and speed combinations. You saw it this past year with guys like Mikel LeShoure, Martez Wilson, and Corey Liuget, all underclassmen who went in the first few rounds.

This year, Illinois might not have similarly talented players at least as they compare to the crop that came out in 2011, but they boast a solid group of players, and with consistency at the quarterback position, they could be a force in the Big Ten.

3 Tavon Wilson (Senior), CB/S, 6’0″ 205

Wilson doubles as a cornerback and strong safety, and is one of the most versatile players in the Illinois secondary. He became a full-time starter in 2009 when he had 74 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, seven passes broken up and an interception, and he followed it up in 2010 with 48 tackles and another interception. As was mentioned before, Wilson has an excellent combination of size and speed, and has been timed in the high 4.3 range. Known as a leader on the field and in the weight room. Coach Ron Zook had great things to say about Wilson as he transitioned from CB to S due to a rash of injuries in the defensive backfield:

“He was not fired up about it,” coach Ron Zook said. “If you ask him, he probably didn’t like it. But he’s a team guy, he’s a winner. He said, `I’ll do whatever I have to for this team.'”

Wilson had a lot of success with the move to safety, as he led the Illini in passes broken up and passes defensed last year. He should have an NFL future either at CB, S, or as a special teams ace or nickel/dime defensive back.

21 Jason Ford (Senior), RB, 6’0″ 235

Ford is a big, strong, powerful running back who will take over this year for the departed Mikel LeShoure at the running back position. Since he came to Champaign, he has carried the ball 277 times for 1,362 yards and 19 touchdowns, including eight as a freshman and seven this past year as a junior. Averaged a career high 6.1 yards per carry as a sophomore in 2009, and in 2010, averaged 4.8 yards per carry. Ford was arrested over the Spring for suspicion of driving with a suspended license, but it appears as though he will still be slated to start in the fall. He will be expected to carry the full load as he and QB Nathan Scheelhaase will combine for one of the top rushing attacks in the Big Ten, and they will be two guys that are very tough to stop. As a senior, Ford needs to really improve in the passing game, or at least as much as the Illinois offense will allow him to. He could be an asset in the NFL, because while he’s not the fastest back, he knows how to make people miss, and his 19 career touchdowns are evidence that he knows how to find paydirt.

9 Trulon Henry (Senior), S/CB, 6’2″ 225

Henry is a big, fast safety who wears the same number that Arrelious Benn (his brother) used to, and to be honest, he wears it a little better. Henry is one of the more intriguing stories in all of college football. When he was a teenager, Henry robbed a Safeway and was sentenced to 60 months in federal prison. However, if you ask anyone close to him, the fact that he has spent time in prison would come as a shock to anyone who got to know him prior to learning that information. Henry spent some time in a “halfway house” of sorts which he described as similar to what Mike Vick went through. After watching his brother in the Rose Bowl, Henry decided to make a comeback to college football, though the road was much tougher than most. Whenever he would tell a prospective college about his situation, it seemed the interest in him disappeared, and no team was willing to take on someone with that kind of checkered past. That is, until he was taken in by the College of DuPage 150 miles away from the University of Illinois, where his brother played.

Henry made his mark at the College of DuPage, where he earned the trust of the coaches and became a top tier junior college recruit. Ron Zook and the Fighting Illini took him in, and he has not disappointed. Henry is a big, strong safety with excellent speed, and really the only downside to his game is going to be his starting age in the NFL, though we saw a 26 year old in Danny Watkins drafted in the first round by the Eagles this past year. Henry will be 27 this season, and 28 during his rookie year in the NFL, but that’s not going to stop him from knocking people out. Henry’s closing speed is absolutely phenomenal, and he has great instincts. His ball skills could use some improvement, but he led the Illini with three interceptions last year, and he hits like a wrecking ball. Henry is a father to his daughter Tatum, as well as a husband and has really turned his life around, and gives all the glory to God. In his first year with Illinois, he had 63 tackles, a forced fumble, and three interceptions. He should be one of the key players for the Illinois defense in 2011.

8 A.J. Jenkins (Senior), WR, 6’1″ 185

Jenkins really broke out as a junior, especially in the later portion of the season. In four of Illinois’ final five games, Jenkins had a touchdown reception and finished the season with 56 catches for 746 yards and seven touchdowns. He also has some ability in the return game, as he had 22 returns for 490 yards and a touchdown as a true freshman, when he also added 11 receptions for 287 yards and three touchdowns. Jenkins was easily Illinois’ best receiver last year, with more than double the yardage total of Jarred Fayson, who had 355 yards. Here’s what his QB had to say about him:

“He’s a confident player, he loves the competition and is willing to go up against any DB in the country I promise you that, so that’s we like throwing to him,” Scheelhaase said of Jenkins.

Jenkins is a speedy, athletic receiver who should undoubtedly get looks from NFL teams, especially if he continues to improve off of his excellent play in 2010.

71 Jeff Allen (Senior), OT, 6’5″ 315

Jeff Allen just might be the best prospect on the Illinois roster. He is the only pre-season first team All Big Ten selection by Athlon sports, and he has far more starts (34) than any other player on the Illinois roster. As a freshman, Allen started nine games at right tackle and earned 2nd team Freshman All American honors. He started 12 games at left tackle in his sophomore year, where he’s been ever since. Allen is just a really solid all around offensive lineman who has NFL potential at both tackle and guard if the team that drafts him should choose to kick him inside. I’m not so sure his best position at the next level isn’t at tackle though, and I think he’s got a nice future ahead.

13 Derek Dimke (Senior), K, 6’0″ 180

Dimke is one of the top kicker prospects in the country. He connected on two of his three attempts from beyond 50 yards last season in his first really full year of kicking duties, with a long of 52. He also has not missed an extra point over the last two years, and has a booming leg on kickoffs. It’s not likely for a kicker to be drafted, so the chances for Dimke in a seemingly deep kicker draft are slim, but he is certainly worthy, especially if he has another season like he had last year where he hit on 24 of his 29 field goal attempts last year.

38 Ian Thomas (Senior), LB, 6’1″ 235

Ian Thomas had a huge season in 2009 in the absence of the injured (and now New Orleans Saint) Martez Wilson, when he had 95 tackles and a sack from the inside linebacker position. Not surprisingly, his numbers took a bit of a dip in 2010 as he switched back to the outside linebacker position. Last year, he had 68 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, and an interception. He improved his all around game, but his tackling numbers just weren’t as high with less tackles to go around. He’s certainly not on the same level as Wilson as an athlete, and Wilson was taken in the fourth round (injury concerns there as well), so we will see how it all works out for Thomas. I don’t quite know where I’d project him right now in terms of NFL potential, but he’s going to have to have a big year.

7 Supo Sanni (RS Junior), S, 6’3″ 220

Another big body at the safety position, and another guy who brings a bunch of speed on the back end of that defense. The Illini fans have to be licking their chops about the potential of this big, rangy safety tandem with the aforementioned Trulon Henry and Sanni who is returning this year from an Achilles injury. Sanni is essentially an injury waiting to happen, which is why it might be likely that after a full year of production (and that’s somewhat iffy), he might bolt for the NFL if he can. He is a guy that the coaching staff is really high on, and they think he can make a significant impact. If he can tap into the potential he has this season, he will vault himself right into the NFL discussion.