Big Ten

After Dawuane Smoot goes in NFL Draft's third round, six Illini get NFL shots as free agents, camp invitees

Illinois' incredible track record of sending defensive linemen to the NFL continued this past weekend, as Dawuane Smoot was picked in the third round of the NFL Draft.

Smoot, going to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the third round, became the sixth Illini defensive lineman drafted since 2011, joining Corey Liuget, Whitney Mercilus, Akeem Spence, Michael Buchanan and Jihad Ward. Four of those guys, including Smoot, are defensive ends.

But there could be more Illinois rookies in the league this fall, as five of Smoot's former teammates were signed as undrafted free agents in the wake of the final selection on Saturday and a sixth got an invite to rookie mini-camp.

Wide receiver Justin Hardee signed with the Houston Texans, quarterback Wes Lunt signed with the Minnesota Vikings, linebacker Hardy Nickerson signed with the Cincinnati Bengals, pass-rusher Carroll Phillips signed with the Jaguars, and pass-rusher Gimel President signed with the Texans. Defensive tackle Rob Bain got an invite to the New York Jets' rookie mini-camp.

For those keeping score, that's three more Illinois defensive linemen getting shots with NFL teams.

Phillips, Lunt and Nickerson will be the most recognizable names on that list to Illinois fans.

Phillips had 20 tackles for loss and nine sacks last season, getting him on the All-Big Ten First Team, and he was expected by many to be selected this past weekend. Instead, he'll re-team with Smoot in Jacksonville.

Lunt was not expected to be drafted, but the classically pro-style quarterback, who was the starter for three seasons even if he had trouble staying healthy and staying on the field, will get his NFL shot in the Twin Cities. Despite those injuries, though, Lunt wrapped his time at Illinois ranking in the top 10 in program history in passing yards, completions and touchdown passes.

Nickerson, the son of a former All-Pro linebacker and Illinois' current defensive coordinator, was the Illini's leading tackler last season.

Hardee has battled his own injury issues and missed the entire 2015 campaign. President had 12.5 tackles for loss after transferring in from Auburn for one season. Bain could find an NFL job on special teams after blocking four kicks at Illinois.