The NFL Draft has come and gone without an Illini picked. The 2020 draft now joins 2018, 2015, and 2014 as Illini-less drafts. By now you probably know that 2014 and 2015 were the first back-to-back drafts without any Illini players since the 1930's. If you restrict that to only the first seven rounds (there used to be 20+ rounds in the NFL draft), 2014 and 2015 were the first back-to-back years without a draft pick since 1977 and 1978. I'm one paragraph in and I'm already not talking about what I set out to talk about.
I wrote a post two years ago talking about the Talent Valley for both football and basketball. We had just finished a school year where the football team went 2-10 and the basketball team finished 14-19. The 16 combined wins between the two programs constituted what I believed to be the worst combined year of my lifetime (even when basketball only won 8 games in 1974/75, football went 6-4-1). So I wrote a post talking about the talent valley and how long we might be in it.
I looked up statistics for both sports to make my point, and the basketball stat was easy:
From 1981 to 2006 (26 seasons): 17 draft picks
From 2007 to 2019 (13 seasons): 1 draft pick
If you're wondering how I wrote that in 2018 yet the statistic says 2019, I was doing a little projection there. I was noting that I didn't expect any Illini to be picked in the 2018 or 2019 NBA drafts (and there weren't).
For football I also did a little projection, looking at the current roster and seeing if I saw any future draft picks. Here's what I wrote at the time:
In the first part of this decade, thanks to the 2007, 2008, and 2009 recruiting classes, we had 16 players drafted (yes, really - four per season). But starting with the 2014 NFL draft (which means "starting with the 2010 recruiting class"), the numbers have taken a nose dive. Four per season from 2010 to 2013... and then four total the last five NFL drafts (Ward, Karras, and Fejedelem in the 2016 draft and Smoot in the 2017 draft). I should just simplify that: 16 in the first four drafts this decade, four in the five drafts since.
And again, if you look at the current rosters, I don't really see many draft picks in the next two classes. I'd say that for the 2019 draft, Nick Allegretti, Del'Shawn Phillips, and (a hopefully healthy) Mikey Dudek would be the three players with a shot at getting drafted. And then in the 2020 draft, perhaps Jamal Milan and Tymir Oliver? Both would have to improve significantly to get there, but I could see it. If Vegas was putting odds on Illini players getting picked the next two drafts, I'm guessing they'd set the over-under at 1.5. So I think it's safe to say "16 NFL draft picks the first four years of this decade, and then six total in the seven years after that". (After that, I feel pretty good. I honestly think you could see five NFL draft picks from the 2017 class. But there's a long way to go between here and there.)
"A long way to go between here and there" indeed. That was May of 2018, so Bennett Williams was on my list after having been on a few freshman All American teams. Williams was then dismissed from the team for a violation of team rules, landed at Juco, and has now signed with Oregon. That also included Louis Dorsey. Same path - was on most All Freshmen Teams for the Big Ten after 2017, dismissed from the team the following year. And the biggest draft lock (in my eyes) from the 2017 class was Bobby Roundtree, and I don't even want to discuss that because it's still so hard to think about.
OK, so with this draft finished, I can update that statement: "16 NFL draft picks from 2010 to 2013 and then five total in the seven years after that". Put more simply, looking at the recruiting classes from 2010 to 2016, we recruited five total NFL draft picks in those seven classes. Actually, since Fej was a transfer from an NAIA school, we "recruited" four NFL draft picks in those seven recruiting classes: Ted Karras in the 2011 recruiting class, Dawuane Smoot in the 2013 class, and Jihad Ward + Nick Allegretti in 2014.
Actually, if we're saying "recruited", we have to add Ke'Shawn Vaughn. Vaughn was part of the 2015 class, transfered to Vanderbilt after Lovie's first season, and was picked in the third round on Friday. So perhaps the best way to put this is just to go through the recruiting classes:
2011: Ted Karras
2013: Dawuane Smoot
2014: Jihad Ward, Nick Allegretti
2015: Ke'Shawn Vaughn (Vanderbilt)
2016: none so far, although five redshirt seniors remain on the roster: James McCourt, Jake Hansen, Ethan Tabel, Doug Kramer, and Jake Cerny.
One more snippet from that post before we move on:
Some will say recruiting, and that's mostly true - our recruiting classes haven't been ranked very high. But for me I stick with the word "talent". If you have a good eye, you don't have to recruit top-10 classes to have "talent". Bo Ryan could spot talent. Jerry Kill could spot talent. They didn't bring in the 4-star or 5-stars, but they did bring in "talent".
Case in point, this NFL Draft. Minnesota just had the most players drafted in program history: 5 in one draft. What's the source of that? Jerry Kill put together an incredible 2016 recruiting class before he had to step down due to health issues. It wasn't "incredible" in terms of ranking - his class ranked 46th nationally and 8th in the Big Ten. But incredible in that the class had four future NFL draft picks. Add Florida transfer Chris Williamson, also drafted yesterday, and Minnesota had the same number of players picked as we have the last seven drafts.
One of them, Carter Caughlin, was supposed to be drafted. He was basically the only top-100 recruit at Minnesota in the last decade. Local 4-star kid stays home, is a star in college, and gets picked by the New York Giants.
He was also the only 4-star recruit in that class. The other players drafted this weekend - wide receiver Tyler Johnson, linebacker Kamal Martin, and safety Antoine Winfield Jr - were all three-stars, with Winfield being a low three-star. The credit for Winfield probably goes to interim coach Tracy Claeys. Coughlin, Johnson, and Martin all committed to Kill before he retired, but Winfield committed to Claeys just before signing day after he had taken over as head coach. I'm getting pretty deep in the weeds here. One more paragraph and then I promise to get to my point:
Some will credit PJ Fleck for the development of these players. I am not one of those people. While development does play a role, in my view it's a very small part of the equation. Antoine Winfield was a future NFL safety back in high school, and the Minnesota staff discovered him. That's 88% of it (in the way I see things), with 12% being "the safeties coach taught him how to not take a false step better than the other 13 safety coaches in the Big Ten taught their players how to not take false steps". Yes, player development is better at some schools and worse at other schools. But not to the point that it puts someone in the 2nd round with one coaching staff and drops them out of the draft with another. For the most part, they get the same training and nutrition and strength development and skill work. The "draft or no draft" decision was, in my view, made at birth. Fej probably needed a Division I program to eventually end up a draft pick (strength training, nutrition, skill development, etc), but he could have gotten that had he transferred to Illinois or Oregon State or Wake Forest or LSU. Finding the raw talent is the key.
With the completion of the 2020 NFL draft, the "Zook lost his recruiting edge, Beckman only found it with jucos, and Cubit didn't find much" chapter is basically closed. Jake Hansen is probably the only Cubit player who has a chance to be drafted, and the Beckman redshirt seniors have all graduated, so we can basically close that out. Here are the results (draft picks per class) starting with Zook's first full class:
2006 (Zook): Vontae Davis, Michael Hoomanawanui, Jon Asamoah
2007 (Zook): Josh Brent, Arrelious Benn, Martez Wilson
2008 (Zook): Corey Liuget, Mikel Leshoure, Whitney Mercilus, Tavon Wilson, Jeff Allen, AJ Jenkins
2009 (Zook): Terry Hawthorne, Michael Buchanan, Akeem Spence, Hugh Thornton
2010 (Zook): none
2011 (Zook): Ted Karras
2012 (half Zook, half Beckman): none
2013 (Beckman): Dawuane Smoot
2014 (Beckman): Nick Allegretti, Jihad Ward
2015 (Beckman): none
2016 (Beckman, then Cubit): none so far (Hansen has a chance)
(I's worth noting that this is just draft picks. Guys like Geromino Allison and Justin Hardee and Matt LaCosse have stuck in the NFL. I could do a deep dive here and look at players who played at least one snap in the NFL - that would include guys who transferred like Nate Palmer and Houston Bates - but I think we're already deep enough.)
The list is fairly glaring, right? When I say the Zook's recruiting fell off a cliff after 2009, I mean, it fell off a CLIFF. When we say that it hasn't been the same since, it just hasn't been anywhere close to the same. There have been five NFL draft picks since - three were high school recruits, one was a juco, and one transferred in from an NAIA school. Three empty classes, and that number possibly moves to four after next season.
And if you wonder why Lovie started 22 different true freshmen in 2017, well, I think that answer is found on this list as well. He inherited two NFL draft picks: Dawuane Smoot, who played for Lovie in 2016 before being drafted in the 3rd round in 2017, and Nick Allegretti, who started for Lovie for three seasons before being drafted in the 7th round in 2019. I know that will be met with "EXCUSE!", but that's a pretty harsh reality. Lou Tepper inherited Brad Hopkins, Dana Howard, John Holocek, Ken Dilger, Scott Turner, etc. Beckman inherited five future draft picks (although three were seniors). Lovie... probably inherited the worst roster of any Illini coach? It would be close between him and Zook (who had, what, Alan Ball plus Rashard as a verbal?).
I'm off track again. My main point here: this draft closed a chapter, I think. In the next few years there should be several players drafted. That's not a guarantee, of course. Right now I see this chapter that closed as "Zook's recruiting fell apart in 2010 and we never really recovered until 2017", but it's possible that this extends through the 2017 and 2018 classes and it becomes "we never really recovered until Beason and Ford in the 2022 draft". I think I see several NFL players next spring, but until they're drafted, that's just my opinion.
I do know this: it's the worst period in Illini football history. It's a fact that we've never gone 0-fer in four drafts over a seven year period. We don't know if it's fixed yet, but we do know that it's as bad as it's ever been.
Soo... happy Sunday everyone! We've known proven that mid-2010's Illini football had the least NFL talent of any span during our lifetimes! Go team!
And please let next year be the year it bounces back.