Ten former Illini currently reside on NFL rosters
September 10, 2020
The NFL begins its 2020 season today with reigning Super Bowl champions Kansas City Chiefs hosting the Houston Texans on Thursday Night Football. While the league has been pretty quiet about players testing positive for COVID-19, the season looks to be in good shape.
The college football season can’t say the same. The Big Ten and Pac-12 will not have fall seasons while the SEC, ACC and Big 12 are already facing campus and team outbreaks. Fans of Illini football won’t be able to see their team compete at Memorial Stadium this fall, but they have 10 former Illinois players to root for in the pros.
Most recently, safety Clayton Fejedelem and offensive lineman Ted Karras, who were both drafted in 2016, were named captains for the Miami Dolphins this season. Both former Illini are playing their first season with the Dolphins.
Fejedelem, one of two special teams captains, spent his first four seasons in the league with the Cincinnati Bengals. There, he played mostly on special teams, totaling 117 tackles, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
Karras, an offensive captain, is the most successful former Illini in the NFL right now. Before heading to Miami, Karras won two Super Bowl rings in four seasons with the New England Patriots. Karras started 15 games for the Patriots last season and is now competing for the Dolphins’ starting center position.
Nick Allegretti, a 2019 Illinois graduate, also landed with a successful team right off the bat. Drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in the seventh round, Allegretti already has a Super Bowl ring and will serve as the backup center this season.
Allegretti will see a fellow Illinois alum in Week 1 in Whitney Mercilus, a Houston Texans linebacker. Mercilus has been with the Texans since 2012 when he was drafted 26th overall after being a unanimous first-team All-American selection in 2011.
Mercilus has had a consistent NFL career, starting 89 games for the Texans and totaling 324 tackles, 50.0 sacks and 13 forced fumbles. The linebacker started all 16 games for the Texans last season, recording 48 tackles, 7.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and two interceptions.
Defensive back Justin Hardee came to Illinois just a year after Mercilus. Spending four years with the Illini, Hardee was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2017 by the Texans. Hardee was then waived just before the 2017 season but was quickly picked up by the New Orleans Saints. Hardee has been there since as a special teams player and re-signed earlier this year.
Dawuane Smoot, an Illini teammate of Hardee’s, will play his fourth season as a defensive end in the pros this year. Smoot was drafted in the third round in 2017 by the Jacksonville Jaguars and has yet to be traded or let go. Smoot recorded his first two sacks in the NFL last season against the Las Vegas Raiders.
Linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips, who was the only senior defensive starter for the Illini in 2018, made his first NFL 53-player active roster this season with the Buffalo Bills. Phillips went undrafted in 2019 and while the Atlanta Falcons picked him up as an undrafted free agent, he was cut just before the season.
Another undrafted Illini, wide receiver Malik Turner, was recently claimed off waivers by the Dallas Cowboys. Turner spent the past two seasons with the Seattle Seahawks after being signed as an undrafted free agent in 2018. In Seattle, Turner played in 21 games and recorded 17 receptions for 265 yards.
The final two Illini currently in the NFL are defensive end Jihad Ward and safety Tavon Wilson, who were both picked in the second round of their respective drafts.
Ward, drafted in 2016 by the Oakland Raiders, has played for four different teams in the NFL. He is currently in his second season with the Baltimore Ravens. Wilson, drafted in 2012 by the Patriots, has been with three different teams. While currently with the Indianapolis Colts, Wilson won a Super Bowl with the Patriots in 2014 and spent four seasons with the Detroit Lions.