Top 20 Illini for 2017 (6-10)

Doug Bucshon, Publisher
Orange and Blue News

ILLINOIS FOOTBALL PREVIEW SERIES

To kick off our Illinois football preview series, Orange and Blue News breaks down our picks for the Top 20 Illini players in 2017.

The Illini are hoping to rebound from a 3-9 record in Lovie Smith's first season in Champaign. The core group of players on this year's squad are very young, with only eight scholarship seniors and over 30 freshmen or redshirt freshman.

No's 6-10 are headlined by junior linebacker Tre Waston, who is the leading returning tackler for the Illini.

MORE TOP 20 ILLINI: 11-15 | 16-20

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Outside linebacker

2 STARS

Illinois
Tampa

RR: 5.4

Ht: 6'2.0"

Wt: 230.0

Class: 2014

-

POSITION

-

NATIONAL

-

STATE

Commitment status:

signed

Illinois

No. 6. Tre Waston. Junior. Linebacker

Watson was one of the most improved players on the Illini team last season, getting 8 starts and earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors.He was second on the team with 102 tackles and recorded 4.5 TFLs and 3 forced fumbles. Several Illini had their best game in the upset of Michigan State, and Watson is no exception, recording a career-high 16 tackles in the game. Watson was expected to move over to middle linebacker to replace graduated senior Hardy Nickerson. Then the Illini signed junior college linebacker Del'Shawn Phillips from NJCAA national champion Garden City C.C. Whatever position Watson plays, he's a sure starter and is expected to be one of the leaders of the Illinois defense. Watson has gotten stronger and shown steady improvement at all aspects of his game; vision, tackling, pursuit. Illinois hasn't been very good at stopping the run. Improved overall play from the linebacker corps looms large.

Defensive tackle

3 STARS

Illinois
Chicago

RR: 5.6

Ht: 6'3.0"

Wt: 285.0

Class: 2015

POSITION

-

NATIONAL

STATE

Commitment status:

signed

Illinois

No. 7. Jamal Milan. Sophomore. Defensive tackle.

Nagging injuries have, so far, prevented Milan from reaching his potential at Illinois. Now over 300 pounds, he has all of the tools you look for in a Big Ten defensive tackle. He's surprisingly nimble for his size, making him a good fit for the single gap system that defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson employs. But too often, we've seen Milan sitting out practices with lower body injuries, stunting his growth as a player. We want to see him play with better instincts and more anger this season. Milan has a high ceiling due to his natural abilities and may be one of the best NFL prospects on the roster. He now has to put it all together. Milan played in the season opener of his freshman year in 2015 before missing the rest of season with a nagging knee injury.
He applied for and received a medical hardship and has three seasons of eligibility remaining. Last year, Milan played in 10 games and recorded 27 tackles and 1 sack. That production will increase dramatically if he can stay healthy for an entire season.


Safety

3 STARS

Illinois
Chicago

RR: 5.7

Ht: 6'0.0"

Wt: 199.0

Class: 2015

POSITION

-

NATIONAL

STATE

Commitment status:

signed

Illinois

No. 8. Patrick Nelson. Sophomore. Safety.

We loved Nelson coming out of Hales Franciscan in the class of 2015 and thought he could make an early impact. Unfortunately, he had to put his career on hold after suffering a knee injury. Following a long rehab, Nelson made a strong come-back in 2016 playing in all 12 games and earning six starts at free safety. He posted 75 tackles and 2.5 TFLs, and showed no lingering effects from the torn ACL that sidelined him for a year. Nelson and sophomore Stanley Green give the Illini defense a tandem of hard-hitting safeties. Nelson put in a lot of time in the weight room, and is a chiseled athlete with enough speed to run with Big Ten receivers. He's the second leading returning tackler this season behind linebacker Tre Watson.

Wide Receiver

3 STARS

Illinois
Naperville

RR: 5.5

Ht: 5'11.0"

Wt: 176.0

Class: 2014

-

POSITION

-

NATIONAL

STATE

Commitment status:

signed

Illinois

No. 9. Mike Dudek. Junior. Wide receiver.

If Dudek had stayed healthy during his career at Illinois, he would easily be No. 1 on our list. He has unlimited talent and play-making ability. Now, after missing two full seasons with ACL injuries, Dudek is ready to return to the gridiron. We won't really know until game one against Ball State if he's retained all of his natural abilities. Those of us who saw Dudek play multiple times in high school at Neuqua Valley thought he was underrated as a 3-star (5.5) prospect. Then early on when arrived on campus in Chamapign, staffers who watched him in workouts started throwing around words like "special", "uncoverable", and "future NFL Draft pick". Dudek lived up to the hype, setting schools records and garnering freshman All-American honors. When he's at his best, Dudek has the quickest feet of any Illini receiver in recent memory, and an uncanny ability to make acrobatic plays on the football.

Pro-style quarterback

3 STARS

Illinois
Newark

RR: 5.6

Ht: 6'4.0"

Wt: 215.0

Class: 2014

POSITION

-

NATIONAL

STATE

Commitment status:

signed

Illinois

No. 10. Chayce Crouch. Junior. Quarterback

Crouch is the type of student-athlete that coaches love to have in their program; leader in the locker room, great teammate, tremendous work ethic. He's a kid that you root for. Now, his on-the-field performance has to match his character off the field. We've seen enough of Crouch as a part-time starter to know he can be an effective runner, though he may have to dial it back some and slide rather than taking big hits. Crouch tried to play through a separated shoulder, but eventually needed off-season surgery. We know Crouch can move the chains on the ground, but he's unproven as a passer. His arm strength is adequate, though it won't blow you away. Crouch's main struggle has been with his accuracy. Last year he completed 18-of-32 passing for 249 yards and one TD in four games. He will never be compared to Tom Brady, but he has improved some at putting the ball where it needs to be. Crouch needs to take a big leap forward if the Illini are to make strides offensively in the coming season.

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