They aren’t expected to be a factor in the Big Ten, but perhaps Bret Bielema’s Illinois squad has more 2023 NFL Draft talent than what meets the eye. Ahead of the 2022 college football season, here’s a glimpse at the top players the Fighting Illini have to offer in the 2023 cycle.
Illinois prospects in the 2023 NFL Draft
A 5-7 overall and 4-5 conference record isn’t going to get anyone excited. There’s still work for the Illinois football program to do before it’s competitive in the Big Ten. But 2022 could be an important stepping-stone year in that sense. If Illinois is going to improve, it’ll be because of these players — the players who are in line to have the biggest impact.
Tommy DeVito, QB
If you recognize the name Tommy DeVito, it’s not a surprise. DeVito has been in college football since 2018, when he first logged in-game experience with the Syracuse Orange. He carried the starting job into 2019 and put up decent numbers — among them 2,360 yards, 19 touchdowns, and just five interceptions. Since then, however, DeVito has regressed. That regression lost him his starting job and landed him in Illinois, where he’ll get one more chance to elevate his game.
Chase Brown, RB
The list of premier playmakers returning for Illinois starts with Chase Brown. The Fighting Illini offense quite literally ran through the 5’11”, 205-pound running back during the 2021 campaign. Brown logged 170 carries for 1,005 yards and five touchdowns. He also caught 14 passes for 142 yards. Brown runs with fast feet and an energetic style. He hits the hole with quickness and carries great speed upfield, but he can also levy sudden cuts in open space. With questions about the passing offense still lingering, Brown is due for another heavy workload. He could emerge as a 2023 NFL Draft prospect.
Isaiah Williams, WR
Isaiah Williams is one of the most intriguing 2023 NFL Draft prospects on Illinois’ roster. He was initially recruited as a four-star QB who doubled as a multi-position athlete. He earned a shot at QB in 2020 but moved to WR ahead of the 2021 season. That move preceded a breakout season in which Williams amassed 47 catches for 525 yards and four touchdowns. Williams’ natural quickness translates extremely well at WR, and he’s already shown he can sink his hips and break routes at tight angles. He could have a bright future as a WR hybrid who can take carries out of the backfield.
Casey Washington, WR
If the Fighting Illini are going to experience a facelift on the offensive side of the ball in 2022, it’ll take more than Williams alone. Casey Washington is a safe bet to be the WR2. The fourth-year junior has been a marginal producer in his time at Illinois, but standing at 6’2″, 190 pounds, he has the traits to potentially take on a greater workload. With the opportunities he’s gotten, he’s at least shown he can work through contact and make tough catches.
Luke Ford, TE
Luke Ford’s stats don’t jump off the page by any means. Last year, the 6’6″, 260-pound tight end only notched 15 catches for 114 yards and two scores. But Ford does have underrated talent. He was a four-star recruit and originally committed to Georgia. He has good functional athleticism, utilizing it to get out of his stance quickly and cover ground upfield. Nevertheless, the most appealing quality of Ford’s — especially for NFL scouts — will be his exceptional blocking ability. He’s a very willing blocker who can effectively latch under his opponents’ pads and drive them away from plays.
Alex Palczewski, G
Alex Palczewski has been around since 2017. He’s started 52 games already, and he isn’t done yet. With experience at both guard and tackle, Palczewski is the swiss-army knife of the Illinois offensive line. With JUCO offensive tackle Isaiah Adams coming into the fold, Palczewski may slide inside to guard once again, having played right tackle since his freshman season. But Palczewski’s versatility is one of his defining characteristics, and it’s something that should earn him a look from teams in the 2023 NFL Draft cycle.
Keith Randolph Jr., DT
Now in his fourth season with the Fighting Illini, Keith Randolph could start generating buzz on the 2023 NFL Draft circuit. 2021 was a quiet breakout for Randolph, who registered 42 tackles, 5 1/2 tackles for loss, and four sacks at the center of the Illinois defense. Now up to 300 pounds, with a long 6’5″ frame, Randolph has the tools to keep producing on the defensive interior.
Seth Coleman, EDGE
More likely than not, Seth Coleman isn’t entering the NFL Draft pool anytime soon. He’s only just now becoming eligible as a redshirt sophomore. Nevertheless, his name bears mentioning, particularly with the departures of Isaiah Gay and Owen Carney. Illinois is nearly bare when it comes to established pass-rushing talent on the edge. Thus, Coleman will be relied upon this year. He still has learning and growing to do, and it won’t all click this year. But the 6’5″ rusher has a good first step, along with impressive length and range in pursuit — all traits worth monitoring.
Calvin Hart Jr., LB
Calvin Hart Jr. had a phenomenal start to the 2021 season. In Illinois’ season-opener, the 6’1″, 230-pound linebacker put up six tackles, 1 1/2 tackles for loss, a sack, a fumble recovery, and a defensive touchdown. It was a dominant performance, but unfortunately, it was the only game Hart played before undergoing season-ending knee surgery. Now Hart is back and on a mission to remind onlookers that he’s still a factor on the Illinois defense. He was flying around the field during that Week 0 showing. That impact will be welcomed back.
Tarique Barnes, LB
Losing Hart after just one week of football was a tough blow for the Fighting Illini in 2021. But Tarique Barnes quietly provided solid play in his stead. Barnes finished the year with 80 tackles, six tackles for loss, two sacks, an interception, five pass deflections, and two forced fumbles. Barnes might not be quite the athlete that Hart is, but Barnes’ dual-sided playmaking both at the line of scrimmage and coverage proved to be valuable last season.
Devon Witherspoon, CB
With Kerby Joseph and Tony Adams both gone from the Fighting Illini ranks, Devon Witherspoon will be tasked with setting the tone in the secondary alongside Sydney Brown. Witherspoon showed plenty of promise in 2021, racking up nine pass deflections as a boundary cornerback. He also presented value as a blitzer and a pursuit defender, logging eight tackles for loss on the year. Witherspoon’s frame is a bit light at 6’0″, 180 pounds, but he’s a physical, energetic cornerback whose fast play pace always keeps him in the play.
Sydney Brown, DB
Illinois’ best two players might be twin brothers. Sydney Brown, the twin brother of star running back Chase Brown, led the way for the Fighting Illini on the defensive side of the ball last year. Not only did he lead the team in tackles with 81, but he also generated a few momentum-changing plays, garnering three pass deflections and two forced fumbles. Brown might be a bit smaller than his listed 6’0″ height. Nevertheless, the Illinois defender is a catalyst for his team, and he’ll maintain that impact in 2022.
Jartavius Martin, DB
Jartavis Martin has been a glue guy for the Illinois secondary for four years. He made an immediate impact as a freshman in 2018 and has since been a mainstay in the secondary rotation. Last year was Martin’s best season yet. He amassed 56 tackles, 3 1/2 tackles for loss, an interception, and six pass deflections. Amidst turnover in the secondary, Martin may move around a bit, but his experience allows him to do just that.