- Michael C. Wright, ESPN Chicago Bears reporter
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ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper figures that by the end of the second round three Illinois juniors could be off the board.
That's a product of former Fighting Illini defensive tackle Corey Liuget, running back Mikel LeShoure and linebacker Martez Wilson all getting "hot at the right time," Kiper said, with strong workouts last month at the NFL Combine.
"They're all guys that are hot right now," Kiper said. "LeShoure is getting a lot of positive commentary, Liuget's been hot through the process, and certainly Wilson has as well. They're all kind of peaking at the right time in terms of the interest and the momentum they're gaining.
"So when the second round has ended, three players from the Fighting Illini are gonna be off the board."
Liuget is projected to go first, followed by LeShoure, who is considered a late-first to early-second-round prospect, and Wilson -- a Simeon grad and second-round prospect -- who is considered the best of what Kiper called "a bad inside-linebacker group".
Liuget compares favorably to former Bears defensive tackle Tommie Harris because of his quick, penetrating style of play, and he finished his three-year career at Illinois with 125 tackles -- including 25.5 for lost yardage -- and 8 1/2 sacks.
"A lot of people like this kid for good reason: He's got a ton of talent," Kiper said. "He's a guy right now [who as the] 14[th pick] to St. Louis would make sense."
Kiper considers LeShoure to be the second-best every-down running back of the 2011 draft class behind Alabama's Mark Ingram. LeShoure set school records for points (122) and touchdowns (20) in a season, and broke Illinois' single-game rushing record with a 330-yard effort against Northwestern at Wrigley Field.
Leshoure also tied for sixth in career rushing (2,557 yards) at Illinois ahead of former Illini stars Pierre Thomas and Rashard Mendenhall. Kiper doesn't think Leshoure is as talented as Mendenhall, but still worthy of a look in the first round.
"I like Leshoure, but I like him as a late 1, early-to-mid 2," Kiper said. "I think he's a borderline first-round pick specifically after the workout. I think Leshoure is no worst than a two."
Wilson, meanwhile, is considered the best among a weak 2011 class of inside linebackers "by a significant margin," Kiper said.
Wilson ran the fastest time (4.49 seconds) in the 40-yard dash among linebackers at the NFL Combine, and is coming off a junior season in which he finally justified all the hype thrust upon him coming out of high school.
After underperforming his first two seasons and suffering a neck injury in 2009, Wilson rebounded in 2010 to post 112 tackles (including 11.5 for lost yardage), and four sacks in addition to forcing three fumbles, deflecting four passes and blocking a kick.
"He really stepped forward this year," Kiper said. "He had all that hype coming out of high school. Then finally this year, I thought he really took it to a new level after being a relative disappointment early on. He had the injury, and then he comes back from it and he's playing lights-out football, and he's had great workouts. He's got a chance to be an early-to-mid second-round pick."
Mel Kiper expects three Illinois players to be drafted by the third round.