Asmussen | Illini making their pro prospects known

Mar. 11—CHAMPAIGN — Bret Bielema has sent his fair share of running backs to the NFL. It looks like Chase Brown is next.

The No. 2 rusher in Illinois history with 3,206 yards, Brown is part of this year's draft class and projected to be selected during the third day on April 29, somewhere between rounds four and seven.

Brown will be the latest in a long line of Bielema's backs to play in the NFL, a list that includes former Wisconsin standouts P.J. Hill, James White, Montee Ball and Melvin Gordon. While Bielema coached at Arkansas, running backs Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins were draftees.

Where does Brown fit among Bielema's best?

"I'd say he's kind of a James White, Montee Ball clash," Bielema said on Friday. "He's got some skill sets. Early down, third down, everywhere in between. I think he's a unique animal."

Brown just completed a successful career with the Illini in which he became the first with back-to-back 1,000- yard seasons since career rushing leader Robert Holcombe accomplished the feat.

Brown could have returned in 2023 and would have had a good chance to top Holcombe's mark of 4,105 yards. But the Canadian instead opted to join twin brother Sydney in the NFL draft. A smart choice, especially after Chase Brown clocked an eye-popping time in the 40-yard dash (4.43 seconds) at last week's NFL Combine in Indianapolis.

"I expect nothing less out of him," Sydney said. "He did everything he could have to turn heads. I think Chase ended up being one of top backs performing at the Combine."

Both Chase and Sydney were in Champaign on Friday for the school's pro timing day. Neither participated in the testing after going through drills at the Combine. The Browns were there to lend support to their Illinois teammates.

Sydney told me the twins plan to spend draft weekend at home in London, Ontario, with family and friends.

"Up north in Canada," Sydney said.

Banner year

Illinois figures to have at least four players picked in this year's draft, which will be the most in one year since five were selected in 2013.

Cornerback Devon Witherspoon is projected as a first-round pick and Sydney Brown should go off the board in the second or third round. Chase Brown and defensive back Quan Martin will also likely be selected, perhaps as early as the second or third rounds. All four went to the Combine, but Witherspoon didn't go through any drills.

"The three that performed at a level that speaks for itself," Bielema said. "I knew that Quan would jump well (he had one of the top vertical leaps). I thought Syd and Chase would run well, better than people thought they would."

Friday's pro timing day included representatives from all 32 NFL teams. That's a change in a good way.

"I think there were less than 20 teams that were here my first pro day (in 2021), which was a group I obviously hadn't coached," Bielema said. "Last year, we were maybe 22, 23 teams. I think it's another great indicator where our program is going."

Because he spent time coaching in the NFL, Bielema has a different perspective now about the Combine.

"I remember there were four DBs from Alabama at the Combine," Bielema said. "Now, we have three."

Bielema keeps hearing positive reports about his guys from the NFL types he communicates with.

"The feedback that I receive from the scouts that are in the room to assistant GMs to head coaches, is just the way our guys interviewed," Bielema said. "They all talked about Football 101 (a Bielema program). They talked about the impact that had on their life, especially as a football player. That makes you, as a coach, feel really good."

The Illinois players in the 2023 draft class made a lasting impact.

"They helped me change just the way of thinking," Bielema said. "Everybody wants to win, but I think they began to feel this year they could win. That was a big step in the right direction."

On his side

Alex Palczewski paved the way for many of Chase Brown's yards. The offensive lineman is thrilled to see Brown moving on to the NFL.

"He's special," Palczewski said. "Since Day 1, he's always been trying to get better. He's remained humble throughout this entire process. He always gives credit first before he takes it. I'm extremely excited to see what he does. Hopefully, God willing, I can block for him one more time."

A six-year player at Illinois, Palczewski wants to join Brown and friends by being picked in this year's NFL draft.

What is his sales pitch to the scouts?

"Whenever a team asks me what they are getting, I just tell them to look at the film," he said. "If you want a guy who is coming to work every single day and putting what they have in every single play, I'm that type of guy."

I joked with Palczewski that he looks like a defensive back.

Thinner than ever before, the 6-foot-6 Palczewski — who played last season at 315 pounds — wants to showcase his athleticism.

He feels comfortable playing both tackle and both guard spots. And he is willing to try center, too.

Having former teammates Nick Allegretti, Doug Kramer and Vederian Lowe already in the NFL makes it easier for Palczewski to imagine it for himself.

"Being able to get tips what they regretted or wish they would have done," he said. "It's been awesome."