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Illinois Football’s 2024 NFL Draft prospects



Illinois football season preview part five.

Illini’s Top 2024 NFL Draft Prospects

The hallmark of a successful program is putting players in the NFL Draft. For developmental programs like Illinois, players on the NFL radar mean that your program works. High school prospects are entering your program and getting bigger, faster, and stronger. Transfer portal players come in and play to their fullest potential. The 2023 NFL Draft was the best year for Illinois football in a long time. Cornerback Devon Witherspoon was the first top-ten draft pick since 1996. Witherspoon is the perfect example of the program working. The Florida native had no Power Five offers out of high school and was a zero-star prospect, per 247sports and rivals.

Witherspoon developed under former head coach Lovie Smith and current head coach Bret Bielema. Former defensive coordinator Ryan Walters and defensive backs coach Antonio Fenelus also had a hand in his development. All in all, the Illini had three top-70 picks in Witherspoon and fellow defensive backs Jartavius Martin and Sydney Brown. Illinois had seven players on the NFL’s radar, with four getting drafted. Six additional players were signed as undrafted free agents.

Which players will represent the blue and orange on draft day in 2024? Here are five players who should expect to hear their names called.

Jer’Zhan “Johnny” Newton, Defensive Line

A fourth-year sophomore, Jer’Zhan Newton has built quite the resume. Last season, Newton made the Walter Camp and AP All-American Second Team and All-Big Ten First Team. Newton led interior defensive linemen in quarterback pressures (59) and was the anchor of the number-one defense in the country. Coming into this season, Newton is the top-rated defensive tackle according to Pro Football Focus, and could be the top interior lineman in the 2024 NFL Draft. It is important to note that Newton also provides versatility by playing on a three-man line. Despite not having those physical dimensions, Newton plays like former New England Patriot Richard Seymour. There are going to be critics that will talk about his length. However, John Randle, Dwight Freeney, and Aaron Donald had good careers without ideal arm length or height. In addition, Calijiah Kancey went in the first round at barely six feet tall.

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Julian Pearl, Offensive Line

Offensive tackle Julian Pearl is an interesting prospect. Much like Devon Witherspoon, Illinois was his only Power Five offer. At 6-foot-7, NFL scouts marvel at his length and athleticism. Although he was an All-Big Ten honorable mention, Pearl must put it all together on the field more consistently. There were tremendous highs, but there were also some abysmal lows. Consequently, Pearl’s draft stock heavily depends on how consistently he plays.

Tahveon Nicholson, Cornerback

Could Illinois Football put even more defensive backs in the NFL this season? Yes, yes, they can. Cornerback Tahveon Nicholson is a homegrown talent that will move up draft boards as the 2024 season progresses. In the mold of Aaron Glenn, Nicholson’s size (5-foot-11 and 180 pounds) is a non-factor. Nicholson is a physical, ornery defensive back with no backdown to his game. Nicholson also has some juice on special teams, another check mark on the resume. He is the most experienced defensive back on the roster and has the opportunity to be the anchor on a rebuilt secondary.

Isaiah Williams, Wide Receiver

It is hard not to be bullish on wide receiver Isaiah Williams. The St. Louis native led the Illini in receptions in the last two seasons. What’s most impressive about Williams is the polish he’s shown as a route runner after spending two years as a quarterback. Some scouts noted his route running during Illinois’ pro day when he ran routes for Tommy Devito. Williams was the volume receiver last season, leading Illinois in receptions (82), playing like a poor man’s Wan’Dale Robinson. As the passing game opens this year, expect Williams to have a massive year in the slot.

Keith Randolph, Defensive Line

The offensive and defensive lines are a common theme in this list, which is good. Any college football coach worth their salt wants to build their teams from the inside out. Like his bookend linemate Johnny Newton, Keith Randolph has versatility. He can play 3-4 defensive end or tackle on a four-man line. Randolph tied for second on the team in sacks (4.5) with Seth Coleman. He was All-Big Ten third team in 2022. Randolph was draftable last year but can improve his stock with another good year in 2023.

Armchair Illini is a comprehensive site dedicated to covering University of Illinois Athletics owned and operated by Alex Kyi. Dante Pryor has been writing about College Football for years on Saturday Blitz and is now the Lead Football Author for Armchair Illini.