The last decade hasn’t exactly been kind to the Illinois football program. Since 2012, the Fighting Illini have gone 39-79 overall and 20-65 in Big Ten play. They’ve only had 2 non-losing regular seasons during that stretch (2014, 2019), and they lost bowl games each time to finish 6-7. They’ve gone through 5 head coaches.

But it hasn’t been all bad; there have been some bright spots along the way. Those bright spots are a talented group of players that kept everyone watching through the tough times. Over these last 10 seasons, Illinois has had 25 All-Big Ten selections, and 18 players have been chosen in the NFL Draft. Of those 18, 9 were selected within the first 3 rounds; 14 are active in either the NFL or another pro league today. There have been other players who have been signed as undrafted free agents or have taken their talents to other leagues.

Here are 10 Illini players who stood out despite the team’s struggles.

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Nathan Scheelhasse, QB (2010-13)

In addition to making the most starts out of any signal caller in Illini history (48), Scheelhasse also leads the program in yards from scrimmage (10,634). He’s 2nd all-time in completions, 3rd in attempts (1,231) and 3rd in passing efficiency (130.2). During his tenure there were times when it seemed like he was the only source of offense for the Illini. Scheelhasse is now an assistant coach at Iowa State.

Josh Ferguson, RB (2012-15)

He was lined up in the backfield next to Scheelhasse during the latter’s final 2 seasons in Champaign. But Ferguson’s impact was felt for 4 seasons in an Illinois uniform. He ranks 6th in school history in rushing (2,586 yards), 3rd in receptions (168 catches) and 2nd in all-purpose yards (4,474). His triple-threat abilities as a rusher, receiver and return man was another bright spot during some rough seasons in program history (Illinois went 17-32 while Ferguson was on campus). He went on to play 4 seasons in the NFL.

Malik Turner, WR (2o14-17)

He’s No. 9 for Illinois on both its all-time receptions list (143) and all-time receiving yards list (1,804). If not for some injuries during his time at Illinois, Turner could have attached his name to other school records. He has played in the NFL for the past 4 seasons and signed with the 49ers for the upcoming season.

Ted Karras, OL (2012-15)

Before becoming the latest member of the famed Karras family to play in the National Football League, he helped anchor an offensive line that helped to keep Scheelhasse upright and open holes for Ferguson to run through. He’s preparing to enter his 7th NFL season as a member of the Cincinnati Bengals, and he’s already a 2-time Super Bowl champion (LI and LIII) thanks to his time with the New England Patriots.

Chase McLaughlin, K (2015-18)

With 211 points scored, McLaughlin is 6th in school history in that category. He’s also 4th in both made field goals (44) and field goal percentage (.746). In 3 NFL seasons, McLaughlin has already made 37 field goals as a professional.

Blake Hayes, P (2017-2021)

He’s considered to be the greatest punter in school history. Hayes certainly has a good argument for that with the most career punts inside the 20-yard line (125), most net punting yards (14,275) and most career punts (326). Hayes’ leg gave a huge assist to the Fighting Illini defense during his 5 years on campus.

Dawuane Smoot, DE (2013-16)

Now applying his trade with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Smoot is tied with J. Leman for 6th in Illini history in tackles for loss (38.5) and ranks 8th in sacks (16.5). He was an All-Big Ten honoree in his senior year.

Mason Monheim, LB (2012-15)

Here’s a man who also found his way into Illinois’ defensive record books. Monheim ranks 7th all-time in tackles (392) and 6th in forced fumbles (7), including 4 in the 2014 season. As a freshman in 2012, he led the team with 86 tackles. He was never worse than 3rd on the team in tackles in his 4 seasons and had a career-best 110 in 2014.

Clayton Fejedelem, DB (2013-15)

He led the Illini in both pass deflections (7) and tackles (140) in 2015. He had a significant impact even though he was only a starter for his final 2 seasons. He’s currently playing for the Miami Dolphins.

V’Angelo Bentley, DB (2012-15)

While he recorded 132 tackles, 10.0 tackles for loss and 11 deflected passes during his Illinois career, it was his special teams play that put him in the record books. He’s the Fighting Illini’s all-time leader in kick return yards (1,860) and ranks 11th all-time in kick return average (21.6 yards), 4th in punt return yards (550) and 3rd in punt return average yards (11.0). He has the longest kick return in school history (100 yards vs. Southern Illinois in 2013) and the 10th-longest punt return (67 yards vs. Ohio State in 2013).

Honorable mention

Bobby Roundtree, DL (2017-18): After recording 117 tackles, 17.5 TFLs, and 12.5 sacks in 2 years, Roundtree had the eye of NFL scouts. Unfortunately a swimming accident in 2019 ended his young career, and he passed away in 2021. In addition to being beloved and respected by teammates, coaches and fans alike, Roundtree was a heck of a football player. He had the ability to play both the end and tackle positions, and was a disruptive force against both the run and the pass.

Mike Epstein, RB (2017-2021): Known for his hard-nosed running style and fearlessness on the field, Epstein battled knee injuries and thus play in 22 games over 5 seasons. But during that time, he ran for 1,276 yards (5.8 ypa) and 11 touchdowns. Despite the injuries, he was on hand for every game, practice and team meeting. Epstein supported his teammates, and was very well respected in the locker room.

Kerby Joseph, DB (2018-2021): After making 116 tackles, grabbing 5 interceptions and recording 6 pass breakups during his collegiate career, Joseph became just the 23rd Illinois defensive back to be chosen in the NFL Draft (3rd round, 97th overall in 2022). Joseph was one of just three Illini players to be selected this year (Vederian Lowe, Doug Kramer), and the was the first to be chosen among those players.