Illinois Football: Bret Bielema continues to build Illini NFL Draft prestige

Oct 8, 2022; Champaign, Illinois, USA;  Illinois Fighting Illini head coach Bret Bielema celebrates
Oct 8, 2022; Champaign, Illinois, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini head coach Bret Bielema celebrates / Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois football has seen somewhat of a resurgence under the Bret Bielema regime.

Some people might see the sentence above and question the word resurgence. How can it be a resurgence with two 5-7 records and an eight-win campaign sandwiched in the middle?

If you have ever watched Illini football, you would know that this stretch of three seasons has been the best football we have seen in a long time. Have there been frustrating moments? Sure. Have there been blown games that could have enabled us to go to bowl games? Definitely.

But the current coaching regime has brought Illinois football out of the dungeons and back into the light. The winning of the field has been nice, albeit I always want more as a fan. It is also nice to see Illini players getting a chance to succeed at the next level.

I would imagine the goal of a lot of FBS players is to get to the NFL. Before Bielema arrived in Champaign, those dreams didn’t come true for a lot of Illinois players.

Bret Bielema has made getting to the NFL a realistic possibility for a lot of Illinois football players

Bielema has been a refreshing change of pace for the Illini. Before he made the leap back into the college ranks to lead the Orange and Blue, the program was not only struggling on the field, but we were struggling to get players into the NFL as well.

I looked back at the six NFL Draft classes prior to Bielema arriving at Illinois, so the 2016-2021 NFL Draft. In this stretch of six NFL Draft classes, the Illini had a total of eight players selected. Let that soak in for a second. There are some programs that have eight players selected in one draft, let alone six drafts.

In steps Bielema and his coaching and development prowess. He didn’t enter the Illini program with a lack of experience in getting players into the NFL. In fact, while at Wisconsin, Bielema was able to get 22 players into the NFL in the six draft classes he had with the Badgers. Some of the notable players who were picked underneath Bielema included Hall of Famer, Joe Thomas, and future Hall of Famers JJ Watt and Russell Wilson, to name a few.

When you look at the 22 players Bielema had selected while at Wisconsin, those players averaged getting selected in the middle of the third round. The number actually comes out to an average draft round position of 3.55.

That is who took over the Illinois football program. Bielema is a coach who has experience developing and sending players into the NFL. He has already shown that with the Illini as well.

There have been two NFL Draft classes since Bielema started coaching Illinois. Over the past two draft classes, the Illini have had seven players selected into the NFL. That is one less player than the prior six draft classes combined.

Illinois’ seven players selected in the NFL Draft also ranks No. 6 in the Big Ten. The only teams to have more are Penn State (14), Michigan (14), Ohio State (12), Wisconsin (8), and Purdue (8).

If you look at the average draft round position, Illinois looks even better. The seven players Illinois has sent to the NFL have an average draft round position of 3.71, so mid-to-late third round. That position ranks No. 3 in the Big Ten, right behind Iowa (2.00) and Ohio State (3.00).

When Bielema took over the Illinois football team, I was hesitant, to say the least. But from day one, he has done a terrific job getting this program to relevance at the college level and when it comes to sending players to the NFL. These numbers prove, once again, that Bielema is the right person for the job.

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