Countdown to College Football Kickoff: Top NFL prospects at Illinois

ILLINOIS -- Dec 30, 2019; Santa Clara, California, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini quarterback Brandon Peters (18) looks to throw the football against the California Golden Bears during the first quarter at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Rob Rang

College football is scheduled to return Saturday, August 29. Each day until then, will be evaluating the rosters of the best teams in college football, including all 64 within the Power Five conferences.

Illinois Fighting Illini

Head Coach: Lovie Smith (fifth season)

2019 Record: 6-7

2020 NFL Draft Picks: None


Lovie Smith’s Fighting Illini made big strides a season ago, stunning then-No. 6 Wisconsin 24-23 to hand the Badgers their first loss on the season and qualifying for a bowl game – the first of Smith’s tenure – after erasing a 25-point deficit against Michigan State.

The Illini have shown their fight the past three seasons, improving their win total by two games each year during that span. Recruiting at the high school level has proven fruitful but if the team is going to take the next step, it may very well be a pair of transfers who lead the way, including returning starting quarterback Brandon Peters.

Peters, a graduate transfer from Michigan, played a key role in his first season on campus, tossing 18 touchdowns against eight interceptions with another three scores and 213 yards on the ground. Peters’ mobility is important to note given how popular dual-threat passers are becoming in the NFL, as well as for his final season in Illinois, which saw its top two runners from a year ago (Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown) each exhaust their eligibility last year.

Illinois is facing a similar transition on the defensive side of the ball with its leading tackler Dele Harding (149 tackles) and pass rusher Oluwale Betiku, Jr. (nine sacks) no longer on the roster.

While Peters is quite raw from an NFL perspective, his experience and talent warrant excitement, especially given how Smith’s program has ascended. With an experienced offensive line and his favorite receiver, Josh Imatorbhebhe (a Southern California transfer), returning, Peters and the Illini enter 2020 as ones to watch. 

Featured 2021 NFL Draft Prospect: Brandon Peters, QB, 6-4, 230, 4.85, rSR

Peters was a highly celebrated prep quarterback who signed with Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines as a four-star recruit back in 2015. He redshirted his first season on campus in Ann Arbor before playing in six games in 2017, starting four. Peters completed 52.8% of his passes in Michigan’s pro-style scheme, good for 672 yards and four touchdowns against two interceptions in his first year of playing time but was relegated to backup duty a year later, attempting just two passes in 2018.

A lack of playing time on the field led to plenty of opportunity off of it and Peters graduated from Michigan in just three years, transferring to Illinois as a post-grad with two years of athletic eligibility remaining.

He started all 11 games in which he was healthy for Illinois last year, completing 55.3% of his passes for 1,884 yards. He missed the opportunity to compete against his former coach and teammates, as well as the game against Northwestern, due to injury with Illinois losing both contests.

Strengths: Possesses a prototypical frame for the position with good height, requisite body armor and arm strength. Above average athleticism for the position with enough mobility to extend the play and scramble when the defense leaves him opportunities. Showing a fairly clean, over-the-top release, Peters delivers the ball with good zip on short and intermediate passes and possesses the arm strength to also make the deep throws to the sidelines. He flashes beautiful touch on deep throws down the seams and sidelines, as well, providing the easy trajectory for his receivers to track over their shoulder. Though his accuracy wanes slightly, Peters is an effective passer on the move, inviting defenders to approach him before slipping the ball past them. There are some very impressive throws while rolling to his right, however, which speak to his upside… He completed just 9 of 21 passes in Illinois’ shocking upset over Wisconsin but delivered strikes when he needed to, including a 29-yard deep post for a touchdown in the final minutes after side-stepping pressure.

Weaknesses: Deserves some grace given that it was his first season in the program but Peters must show better anticipation as a passer in Year Two. In 2019, Peters had to see it to throw it, consistently staring down his primary target and alerting the defense as to his intentions. While the ball flies out of his hand, Peters has a slight windup which is further complicated when he cannot step into throws. His accuracy wanes when he’s on the move, typically hitting his receivers but forcing them to adjust their routes and occasionally sailing throws over their head… Tried doing too much, at times, holding the ball with pressure in his face in an attempt to escape but losing more yardage or making risky late throwaways…

NFL Player Comparison: Mike White, New York Jets – The 6-5, 220 pound White began his college career at South Florida but didn’t emerge as an draftable commodity until after posting eye-popping numbers at Western Kentucky. He was selected in the fifth round of the 2018 draft by Dallas and is currently on the Jets’ practice squad.

Current NFL Draft Projection: Fifth Round

The Top 10 NFL Prospects at Illinois:

1. Brandon Peters, QB, 6-4, 230, 4.85, rSR* Michigan transfer

2. Jake Hansen, OLB, 6-0, 230, 4.70, SR

3. Josh Imatorbhebhe, WR, 6-1, 215, 4.55, rSR* Southern California transfer

4. Doug Kramer, C, 6-2, 300, 5.20, rSR

5. Alex Palczewski, OT, 6-5, 300, 5.10, SR

6. Blake Hayes, P, 6-5, 230, 5.2, SR

7. Ricky Smalling, WR, 6-1, 205, 4.55, SR

8. Sydney Brown, S, 6-0, 210, 4.65, JR

9. Ra'Von Bonner, RB, 5-11, 215, 4.60, SR

10. Daniel Barker, TE, 6-4, 245, 4.85, JR

*All 40-yard dash times are estimates