The first college football game of the season was a Big Ten match-up of two programs that have struggled for relevancy as of late. Nebraska’s 4th year starting QB Adrian Martinez was going up against an Illinois team packed with seniors and super seniors under veteran coach Bret Bielema. Illinois pulled the upset by dominating at the line of scrimmage and capitalizing on Nebraska’s mistakes. From a draft perspective, there were several solid NFL Draft prospects in this game, and at least a few will be drafted, barring anything unforeseen.
Doug Kramer, Center
Though I thought Nebraska had the higher-end prospects, Kramer proved why he should be in the conversation amongst Day 2 Centers for the 2022 NFL Draft. His former teammate, Kendrick Green, will be starting at Center for the Pittsburgh Steelers as a rookie. Kramer’s excellent play in the middle of the line forced Green to play Guard often last year, so there is real talent there. With a great knee bend and that nasty demeanor you expect from Big Ten linemen, Kramer has the skillset to be an NFL contributor and potential starter in the pros. His best play was clearing the hole for a Mike Epstein touchdown to give the Illini some good momentum. He even got chippy after the play for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, but the aggression was positive. He will need the right system fit, but Day 2 is in his range.
Blake Hayes, Punter
One of the early highlights was Hayes coffin cornering a kick inside the 5-yard line to flip the field. Hayes’ placement is outstanding as each punt had good hangtime to ensure there was no return while still giving it enough distance. He is ranked as my #5 Punter, but after seeing the game today, he will move up a few spots.
Calvin Hart Jr. EDGE
One of the stars of the game was NC State transfer Hart, who was ripping through the Nebraska line nearly every pass. He gave Martinez fits with an excellent dip move that caught the heavy-footed Husker linemen off guard. Hart showcased enormous potential with great instincts at closing the pocket and even setting the edge against the run. The stat line showed his impact as well, with a sack and two recovered fumbles in the game. With more games like this, Hart could put himself in the draftable conversation.
Owen Carney, EDGE
Carney has been a solid producer who got after the QB plenty last season. In this game, he seemed a bit more tentative off the snap than in 2020, mostly sticking to setting the edge and playing the run. He was effective with solid sideline burst and was especially good at disengaging and filling the inside gap. He’ll need some more significant plays to make an NFL Draft dent but could be a Day 3 pick.
Mike Epstein, Running Back
Epstein has been an Illini mainstay for a while, but an injury his sophomore season threatened his college production. Last year, he seemed like he wasn’t at 100% in his burst and contact balance, but this game showed that Epstein is back to his old self in 2021. With good size and excellent balance, Epstein was breaking tackles and moving the chains for the offense. His burst was surprising, and it resulted in a good outing of 75 yards and a touchdown. He could be a camp body with an NFL future if his skills have returned.
Luke Ford, Tight End
The Georgia transfer got the start over Daniel Barker and flashed some real talent. Solid run blocker with good length and a push to the second level. He also was excellent at finding holes in zome coverage, including on his touchdown catch. Ford is very athletic and was a high-end 4* recruit who is MASSIVE. His upside is off the charts and worth following as he could put himself on the NFL Draft radar.
Sydney Brown, Safety
Brown played mostly in the box to give an extra force against the run and force Martinez to use his arm to win. He showed good instincts and downhill tackling at reading the runners. A potential special teams player at the next level.
Vederian Lowe, Offensive Tackle
Lowe played LT throughout the game and is an impressive specimen at 6’6 320. His long arms are impressive, but he doesn’t quite know how to use them. In the run game, he had no trouble opening holes and sealing Edge defenders away from Epstein. In the passing game, he was put on skates a few times, and his feet were all over the place. The size and ability could get him into a camp.
Chase Brown, Running Back
The expected started coming in; Brown may have gotten hurt early in the game and gave way to Epstein. Only five rushes with nothing to write home about; if Brown is in a committee now, he likely will go back to school after this year.
Brandon Peters, Quarterback
Peters came out looking pretty sharp but suffered an injury that kept him out of the game.
Daniel Barker, Tight End
Barker wasn’t a factor in this game and is clearly behind Ford.
Adrian Martinez, Quarterback
As a four-year starter who often struggles, this was Martinez’s year to show he has NFL potential. He is athletic and can run, something he showcased well in this game, but the passing was horrendous. Even the good completions forced his receivers to make difficult adjustments to the football. Suffice to say, Adrian Martinez is not an NFL QB, even as an undrafted free agent, and he may not even make it through the season as Nebraska’s starting QB.
Cam Taylor-Britt, Cornerback
Taylor-Britt was doing what he usually does. Being physical at the line, getting grabby with Wide Receivers to throw them off their routes. He has good make-up speed too, so there was a solid performance here. One penalty was called on him due to that aggression, but the worst may have been as a Punt Returner. He fielded an unnecessary punt leading to a safety. Even with those negatives, the athleticism, physicality, and special teams ability do still scream mid-round pick.
Deontai Williams, Safety
Williams had an impressive game being utilized in the box and even rushing the passer at times. He was in on a nice sack. His coverage ability had some problems, including late reactions to passes and some lapses in zone coverage. Overall, it seems like he can be an excellent special teams player and maybe sneak into the draft.
Ben Stille, Defensive Line
Stille was a stonewall in the middle and one of the bright spots for Nebraska’s team. Though he didn’t have a ton of stats, Illinois ran away from Stille as he ate up gaps. Stille showed some good leverage and leg drive throughout the game, especially when trying to collapse the pocket. Stille is a late-rounder to watch.
Damion Daniels, Defensive Line
Daniels had an up and down game. He often was blown off the line in the run game, despite a few penetrating plays. He had a nice bat down at the line, but it wasn’t a great showing overall. We will see what the next few weeks bring.
Samori Toure, Wide Receiver
A transfer from Montana, Toure was lined up as the X for the Huskers. After a nice catch where he shook off a defender in coverage, it appeared Toure would be used a ton. As Martinez struggled, Toure didn’t get the targets that should have come his way. He is a talented player with great quickness and physicality. Toure might be in a similar boat to Josh Palmer last year, where the production isn’t there due to a poor offense, but the talent gets him into the NFL.
Austin Allen, Tight End
Allen had a solid day blocking, though he rarely was overpowering. A safety valve for Martinez, Allen had two solid catches against zone coverage where he showed toughness after the catch. He could be drafted late as an in-line blocker.
Marquel Dismuke, Safety
Dismuke cleaned up some tackles in the middle of the field, but his coverage skills were lacking in this one. He got beat a few times trying to turn and run with receivers, and it hurt Nebraska. This performance puts him in the undraftable range.
Jojo Domann, Linebacker
Domann was invisible most of the game, rotating in. That isn’t a good sign if he can’t crack the lineup consistently on a Huskers team that needs the defensive help.
Cam Jurgens, Center
It wasn’t a great game for Jurgens, who seemed a bit lost when Illinois did any type of unique interior blitz, often leading to pressure of Martinez. He also doesn’t possess the athleticism to make up in pass protection. He did get some run-game push so that something may be there, but he remains with a UDFA grade for me for now.
Connor Culp, Kicker
Culp hit a 27 yarder but missed two extra points. Cross him off the draftable kicker list.
Travis Vokolek, Tight End
Vokolek did not make the trip due to injury.
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