Offensive guard Hugh Thornton, defensive linemen Michael Buchanan and Akeem Spence, and cornerback Terry Hawthorne lead the group of former Illini players hoping to hear their names called at the draft, which will be conducted from April 25-27 at the Radio City Music Hall in New York.
Thornton is likely to be the first former Illini selected. The 6-foot-3, 330-pound guard is listed as the sixth best at his position by CBS Sports, which also believes he will go in either the third or fourth round. Thornton started 11 games, with 10 of them coming at left tackle. He named to the All-Big Ten second team by the coach and was an honorable mention by the media.
Buchanan, a 6-foot-6 defensive end, was a second-team All-Big Ten selection the last two seasons. He had a combined 121 tackles and 12 sacks, including 57 tackles and 4.5 sacks as a senior. One of 15 players that worked out on Illinois' pro day in front of 27 NFL scouts, Buchanan is a projected fourth- or fifth-round pick by CBS Sports.
Spence, listed at 6-foot-1 and 305 pounds, finished last season with a combined 72 tackles, including seven for losses and one sack. He ended his three-year collegiate career with 186 tackles, 3.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. With Spence forgoing his senior year, it is the third straight season that Illinois has lost a defensive lineman to the NFL early. Whitney Mercilus left in 2012 and Cory Liuget left in 2011.
Spence, the 12th best prospect at his position, is projected to be a fourth-round pick by CBS Sports.
Hawthorne, a 2008 graduate of East St. Louis High School, leaves Illinois after back-to-back seasons as an All-Big Ten honorable mention. The cornerback was recruited by Illinois to play wide receiver, but he made the switch to corner halfway through his stay in Champaign.
As a senior, Hawthorne had one interception included in his team-high seven passes defended. He also made 44 tackles, including four for losses. Hawthorne led the team with three interceptions and 11 passes defended as a junior.
Standing at 6-foot with a wingspan of 31-1.25, Hawthorne is projected to go in either the fifth or sixth round by CBS Sports.