Former Illinois FCS stars making impacts on NFL rosters
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When last seen on the football field, former Western Illinois defensive lineman Khalen Saunders was part of the Kansas City Chiefs’ Super Bowl celebration.
Saunders and his teammates return to action Thursday by hosting the Houston Texans in a national prime time broadcast to open the 2020 NFL season.
“What the Chiefs need to see from Saunders in 2020 are some improvements. He’s already improved as a run defender throughout the 2019 season. What I am looking for is continued development as a pass rusher,” Charles Goldman of USA Today’s Chiefs Wire wrote in the offseason.
Saunders, taken by Kansas City as the 84th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, registered 22 tackles and a sack in his rookie season. The St. Louis native left WIU with a career 204 tackles, 34.5 tackles-for-loss, 18 sacks and four forced fumbles.
Saunders is the second former Leatherneck to play for Kansas City; end Jack Atcheson, who was selected with the first pick in the 1960 AFL Draft, was the first draft choice in Chiefs’ franchise history.
Saunders and nine others represent the four Illinois FCS programs on this year’s opening day NFL rosters, the same number as the last two seasons; the number was six in 2017.
Moreover, six ex-Illinois FCS players are listed on NFL practice squads, including two of Saunders’ former WIU teammates: linebacker LaCale London (Chicago) and receiver Lance Lenoir (Seattle).
Rockford’s Mr. Robinson . . .
Rockford native and former Illinois State running back James Robinson went undrafted by NFL teams, yet appears to have found a home with the Jacksonville Jaguars as a free agent signee.
Earlier this week, Jacksonville listed Robinson as a starter on its unofficial depth chart. The Jaguars earlier released veteran back Leonard Fournette and Ryquell Armstead was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
“The rookie earned plenty of looks as he showcased his talents during training camp,” wrote Demetrius Harvey of SB Nation’s Big Cat Country. “While Robinson is starting, we should caution the team, and head coach Doug Marrone, doesn’t appear committed to one single running back, at least for now. The Jaguars will likely use a healthy dose of all three running backs during the game, with Chris Thompson as the team’s third-down/receiving back.”
Robinson ended his ISU career ranked No. 2 in the school record book in rushing yards (4,444), rushing touchdowns (44), all-purpose yards (5,218) and total touchdowns scored (46).
The Rockford Lutheran High School graduate caught the eyes of pro personnel at the East-West Shrine Bowl, where he accumulated 136 total yards (80 rushing, 56 passing) and scored the longest touchdown in the history of the prestigious game with a 63-yard rushing score.
. . . and Naperville’s Mr. O’Shaughnessy
Jacksonville also listed Naperville native and former ISU standout James O’Shaughnessy as its No. 1 tight end.
“This may not matter much at all, however, the rapport between (quarterback Gardner) Minshew and tight end James O’Shaughnessy was evident throughout camp, even while he was coming back from a torn ACL,” wrote Harvey. “However, (tight end) Tyler Eifert will still be playing a major role, and could end up starting depending on the formation the team starts out in.
“Ultimately, the Jaguars will rely on both O’Shaughnessy and Eifert a lot this season, and that much was made clear this year during training camp.”
In addition to Robinson and O’Shaughnessy, two other former ISU Redbirds are on NFL rosters — both with Denver. Defensive end Shelby Harris is expected to start for the Broncos, while Davontae Harris (no relation) will see significant time in the Denver secondary.
Safety Luther Kirk, Robinson’s teammate at ISU, is on his hometown Dallas Cowboys’ practice squad. Kirk was named the defensive player of the game in the East-West Shrine Bowl.
Former ISU player Mike Zimmer is the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings. Born in Peoria, Zimmer is a Lockport High School graduate.
Rolling Meadows’ Jimmy G
Former Rolling Meadows High School and Eastern Illinois star Jimmy Garoppolo remains the starting quarterback for San Francisco, a season after the 49ers won the NFC title and lost to Kansas City in the Super Bowl.
Last season, Garoppolo passed for nearly 4,000 yards (3.978) while throwing 27 touchdowns. He was intercepted 13 times. He is set to begin his third season in San Francisco after backing up Tom Brady in New England at the start of his pro career.
“Jimmy is our quarterback, and we’ve stated that numerous times,” 49ers general manager John Lynch said Sunday. “Jimmy is as big a part of our plans as he’s ever been. And we’re really excited having Jimmy Garoppolo as our quarterback going into this year.”
Meanwhile, Garoppolo’s former EIU teammate Kamu Grugier-Hill is on the Miami Dolphins roster. Like Garoppolo, Grugier-Hill started his pro career as a New England draft pick. Following four seasons in Philadelphia, the linebacker signed with Miami as a free agent this past offseason.
Grugier-Hill has appeared in 54 games with 16 starts over the past two seasons. The Hawaii native also has played in five postseason games.
Receiver Alexander Hollins is on the Minnesota practice squad. Hollins appeared in five games and caught two passes for 46 last season as a Vikings rookie.
Sean Payton, who quarterbacked EIU from 1983 to ’86, has been New Orleans Saints head coach since 2006.
Former EIU defensive lineman Ryan Pace remains the Chicago Bears’ general manager. Tim Kelly, another ex-Panther, is the Houston Texans’ offensive coordinator.
Three former Southern Illinois Salukis show up on active rosters.
Jeremy Chinn, a sensation at last winter’s NFL Combine, is a highly touted safety for Carolina. Chinn was the Panthers’ second-round draft choice last spring and the 64th overall player taken.
Carolina defensive back Juston Burris told Myles Simmons of panthers.com, “He’s (Chinn) going to be great for this defense wherever they line him up.”
The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Chinn was a consensus All-American in his senior season in Carbondale.
With 52 games of NFL experience, tight end MyCole Pruitt is with the Tennessee Titans. Pruitt is the Missouri Valley Football Conference’s all-time leading tight end in receptions (211), yards (2,601) and touchdowns (25).
Cornerback Craig James is on the Philadelphia Eagles roster. James, who played with Minnesota in 2018, has appeared in 17 career NFL games.
Defensive backs Madre Harper and Ryan Neal are listed on the Las Vegas and Seattle practice squads respectively.