For the first time since 2006, Illinois was shut out of the NFL draft this past spring, coming off a 4-8 season that left them home for bowl season for the fourth time in the past six years. Tim Beckhman enters his third season as the Illini head coach in 2014 and is on the hot seat with only six wins in his short tenure in Champaign.
Beckman hasn't attracted too many big-time high school recruits up to this point, but the addition of Oklahoma State transfer quarterback Wes Lunt has the potential to change the direction of the program and he might be the top pro prospect on the roster. But entering the 2014 season, the Illini don't have any seniors projected as draft picks and are in danger of going back-to-back drafts without a representative for the first time in school history.
Illinois' NFL Draft-Eligible prospects to watch in 2014:
QB Wes Lunt, RS Sophomore (6-4 | 215 | 4.84 | #12)
A four-star high school recruit, Lunt arrived at Oklahoma State in 2012 as a legitimate contender for the starting quarterback job. And he did start five games as a freshman for the Cowboys before a knee injury sent him to the sidelines and Lunt quickly found himself out of favor in Stillwater. After a strenuous transfer process, Lunt ended up at Illinois and sat out last season due to transfer rules. He enters 2014 as the projected Illini starter and a player expected to inject some life into an offense that loses four of the top-five receivers from a year ago and a ground attack that ranked 10th in the Big Ten in 2013. From a physical standpoint, Lunt has the size, arm strength and athleticism that intrigues next level evaluators and if he can lead an Illinois squad (without much NFL talent) to some success, it will only help his pro profile.
FS Zane Petty, Senior (6-1 | 200 | 4.67 | #21)
No Big Ten defense allowed more yards last season than Illinois and to be honest, it was tough to find positives on that side of the ball when watching Illini tape. After starting the season as a nickel player, Petty started the final seven games last year and finished fourth on the team in tackles (75). He began his collegiate career at Colorado State, the same place where his father starred before going on to an NFL career with the Denver Broncos. But he lasted only one season before moving on to the junior college ranks and later transferring to Illinois before last season. Petty has solid size and length with growth potential to continue and add bulk to his frame. He is rangy with the foot quickness to attack downhill, drop in coverage or recover after false steps. But he needs to improve his anticipation and decision-making when making a play on the ball, too often waiting for the play to develop before committing his momentum. Considered more of an undrafted prospect right now, Petty is one of the few seniors on this roster worth watching for the 2015 NFL Draft.
Other Illinois prospects worth watching:
RB Josh Ferguson, RS Junior (5-10 | 195 | 4.60 | #6)
Illinois ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in rushing last season, but that was more of a result of Illini's pass happy tendencies, not lack of talent. Ferguson led the team in rushing with 779 yards, seven scores and a 5.5 average and finished second on the team in catches (50).
WR Geronimo Allison, Junior (6-3 | 184 | 4.54 | #8)
One of the top additions to the Illinois' roster in 2014 is Allison, who transferred from Iowa Western Community College. Although he's only been in town for a few months, Allison's skinny, but athletic skill-set has already turned heads and he is expected to be one of the team's top targets this fall.
TE Jon Davis, Senior (6-3 | 240 | 4.68 | #3)
After flashing exciting potential as a true freshman in 2011, Davis has yet to take his game to the next level and has left fans and evaluators wanting more. He doesn't have ideal size and strength for the position, but is versatile and athletic and has a chance to impress as a senior if he can find consistency.
DT Jihad Ward, Junior (6-7 | 288 | 4.89)
Another JUCO transfer who could make noise for Illinois in 2014, Ward played the last two years at Global Institute of Technology in New York where he became one of the top-rated JUCO recruits. He has a lot of developing to do, but his name is one to file away for the 2016 NFL Draft.
SS Earnest Thomas III, RS Senior (6-1 | 210 | 4.59 | #9)
The starting “STAR” in Illinois' base defense, Thomas is the top returning tackler for the Illini, finishing last season with 101 stops and a team-best three forced fumbles. But he also proved to be valuable defending the air with a team-high seven passes defended.