The National Football League opens its annual player draft tonight in Cleveland, however Illinois FCS fans aren’t likely to hear the name of one of the four state schools until the later rounds.
If projections hold true, Illinois State safety Christian Uphoff stands the best chance at being drafted. Uphoff, listed at 6-foot-2 and 209 pounds, has been predicted anywhere from being a fifth-to-seventh round selection to an undrafted free agent.
Offensive lineman Drew Himmelman, Uphoff’s former Illinois State teammate, is a likely seventh-round choice or undrafted free agent. Himmelman is listed at 6-foot-10 and 315 pounds.
Both Uphoff and Himmelman are Illinois natives. Uphoff is from Washington, and Himmelman hails from Geneseo.
While Uphoff opted out of the spring FCS season to train for the draft, Himmelman played in the four ISU games before the Redbirds called off their season in late March.
Both players received invitations to the NFL Combine; however, that annual event was canceled due to the pandemic. Uphoff did play in the Senior Bowl, while Himmelman would likely have been invited to the East-West Shrine Bowl, another event that was called off.
Illinois State did hold a pro day for Uphoff, Himmelman and two other former Redbirds — quarterback Brady Davis and defensive end Romeo McKnight — March 18 in Normal. Pro days give NFL scouts and personnel a chance to gather information and work out players firsthand.
According to a Chicago Tribune article by Colleen Kane on the event, “Himmelman stuck to just measurements and not drills because he hadn’t been training for those events like other prospects.”
Davis, who transferred to ISU from Memphis in 2018, left Normal in the fall to prepare for a possible pro career. Davis played in an all-star game based in Hawaii.
McKnight, who transferred to ISU from Iowa the same year as Davis, left the Redbirds last fall to play for FBS-level Charlotte. McKnight, a Crystal Lake Central High School graduate, played in six fall games. He led Charlotte in tackles-for-loss and was named honorable mention all-Conference USA.
Dane Brugler of The Athletic projects Uphoff as the 243rd overall pick in his mock draft.
Brugler wrote: “Uphoff flies around the field with outstanding range and smooth hips to stay attached in coverage or attack alleys downhill. He has a quick trigger once he sees it but struggles to anticipate, and he is a 50/50 tackler due to wild pursuit angles and poor form.
“Overall, Uphoff must continue developing his instincts and tackling technique to stick in the NFL, but he offers intriguing tools with his length, speed and fluidity. He projects as a late-round developmental prospect with special-teams ability.”
Sports Illustrated’s NFL Draft Bible evaluated Uphoff as “your ideal two-high safety who has barely begun to tap into his upside athletically.”
In addition, the publication stated: “Uphoff is a loose mover who has some notable range on the back end, working hash to sideline with great efficiency. He is a willing tackler who has no problem mixing it up in the box. Uphoff is a big projection who lacks the power profile to match up consistently near the line of scrimmage, especially with the increased level of competition on the horizon.
“He is a little high-cut, affecting quickness in his transitions, specifically unhinging and working vertically down the sideline. A surprise Senior Bowl honoree, Uphoff has the profile that will have teams excited for what the future can bring. With his combination of size, growth potential and smoothness, Uphoff is a developmental piece on the back end whose patient investment could bring substantial long-term dividends.”
National writer Craig Haley recently published an article on the top draft FCS prospects. He shared the average round projections of three draft evaluators: NFL Draft Bible (DB), The Draft Network (DN) and Draft Scout (DS).
Those projections had Uphoff as a sixth- or seventh-round pick while Himmelman was listed as a priority undrafted free agent.
“Late-round developmental prospect who offers excellent size and instinctive play,” Haley commented on Uphoff.
Of Himmelman, Haley wrote, “Mammoth tackle played in spring season before entering the draft, has aggressive style of play.”
McKnight and Davis were listed among the “Others to know.”
Illinois FCS Draft history by the numbers
NFL Draft picks by school
Western Illinois 36
Southern Illinois 32
Illinois State 18
Eastern Illinois 15
Highest pick for each school
Lionel Antoine, SIU, Chicago Bears, 1972 first round, third overall
Leroy Jackson, WIU, Cleveland Browns, 1962 first round, 11th overall
Jimmy Garoppolo, EIU, New England Patriots, 2014 second round, 62nd overall
Estus Hood, ISU, Green Bay Packers, 1978 third round, 62nd overall
Most recent drafted player
Jeremy Chinn, SIU safety, 2020
Khalen Saunders, WIU defensive lineman, 2019
Davontae Harris, ISU cornerback, 2018
Kamu Grugier-Hill, EIU linebacker, 2016