Illini football's D-linemen battling to be 'next guy' drafted

Illinois football has established a new spring tradition.

In each of the last four seasons, an Illini defensive lineman has been selected in the NFL draft. And this year’s front four — ends Michael Buchanan and Justin Staples and tackles Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster — will be playing to keep the tradition alive.

“We see the scouts coming out,” Spence said. “We’re just trying to work hard to be the next guy.”

Defensive end Whitney Mercilus was “the next guy” in 2011. After a 16-sack breakout season, Mercilus received the Hendricks award, given to the top defensive end in the nation and was selected No. 26 overall by the Houston Texans in April’s draft.

“That’s what we want to be known for,” said Illini defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, who is the lone holdover from former head coach Ron Zook’s staff and the man behind two first-round draft picks. “Our niche the last few years has been to get defense lineman and give them an opportunity, and I think guys have bought into it to continue the tradition.”

Before Mercilus came Corey Liuget, who was drafted by the San Diego Chargers with the 18th pick in 2011. And before him were Josh Brent and Will Davis, late-round draft picks in 2010 and 2009, respectively. Brent was selected in the 2010 supplemental draft.

Next up for Illinois are Buchanan and Spence, who both appear to be the leading candidates to catch the eyes of NFL scouts. But Gilmore said all four of his starters have pro potential.

Buchanan logged 7.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for a loss as a junior last season. He was named to multiple preseason watch lists — including the Bednarik Award and Nagurski Trophy, which is given to the nation’s top defensive player — but the 6-foot-6, 240-pound lineman is avoiding the hype.

“It’s a great honor to be on the watch lists, but that’s one of those things that you can’t really let go to your head,” Buchanan said. “Once you think that you’re better than you are, that’s when you stop working.”

The Illini defensive linemen have spent the summer shrugging off questions about drafts, watch lists, rankings and their future.

“If I go out there and don’t produce, it’s all for nothing,” Buchanan said.

Former Illini and current Chicago Bears defensive end Derek Walker said it’s exciting to see his alma mater developing a reputation for producing elite defensive linemen.

“It’s kind of crazy how it’s going,” he said. “Every year there’s a new D-lineman coming up and there’s one right behind him. ... It’s just rolling now. I love it.”

Walker didn’t get drafted after his senior season in 2008, but the former honorable mention All-Big Ten selection had brief stint in the NFL in 2009 and after two years away, he is hoping to make the 53-man roster this season.

“We have a lot of talent down there (in Champaign),” he said. “I’m just trying to keep it going.”

Gilmore said the defensive line tradition at Illinois is a great tool when recruiting players who have their eyes set on a NFL career.

“The proof is in the pudding,” he added.