The Illinois Fighting Illini football program has been on quite the run when it comes to the NFL Draft, but this season it appears their hopes of having a player drafted lie squarely on the shoulders of Jonathan Brown. Most mocks don’t project all the way through the 7th round, but one by walterfootball.com did, and they project that Brown will be taken by the Atlanta Falcons in the final round, a mere 3 picks before Mr. Irrelevant is selected.
From where I sit, Brown is going to be anything but irrelevant when his playing career is all said and done, but that’s not the point of this post. So, what is? How about a player that will be the highest drafted player in this year’s NFL Draft that once wore Illinois orange and blue?
While looking through the Walter Football mock draft to see where Jonathan Brown may land I came across an interesting name that would have, at one time, had an Illini logo next to his name: Walt Aikens.
In 2010, Walter Aikens, Jr. was a member of the All-Big Ten Freshman team while totaling 32 tackles and 2 pass breakups covering 10 games, including 5 starts at the safety position, and the sky appeared to be the limit for the 6’1”, 205 pound cornerback as a member of the Illini. Then came an arrest for theft, and Aikens was subsequently dismissed from the Illinois football program as a result.
It was too bad, really, because we all know the Illinois secondary would have benefitted from having him in the fold the past 3 seasons. Sometimes people make mistakes, learn from them, and move on to better themselves. This is one of those stories.
Aikens moved on to Liberty University, and he flourished, just as most Illini fans would suspect a former All-Big Ten level player would when given a chance to play against a perceived lower level of competition.
At Liberty, Aikens slid over to the cornerback role and he finished his career there on a high note by being selected as a member of the First Team All-Big South Conference with a team leading 62 tackles his senior season. Over his 3 year Liberty career, Aikens recorded 162 total tackles, broke up 13 passes, intercepted 7 passes, and forced 6 fumbles.
Scouts seem to love his size, and his ability to play press coverage. He turned heads at the Senior Bowl, and with the NFL morphing into such a pass heavy league it’s a virtual lock that he will be selected during this year’s draft because it seems that no team can ever stockpile enough quality depth at the cornerback position.
So, when you see Walt Aikens go off the board sometime this weekend between the 3rd – 6th rounds, and you wonder why his name sounds so familiar, just remember that he once donned the Illinois uniform and if not for a poor decision following his freshman campaign could have been yet another in a long line of Illini players drafted, even if the national pundits omit that part of his collegiate story when describing how he may help his future NFL team.
You can follow Ryan on Twitter @RPKraemer.