Illini Rooting Guide: Four Former Illinois Players Remain in Super Bowl Hunt

Photo courtesy of New Orleans Saints

Now, we’re pretty sure the majority of Illinois fans are split between Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers fans.

Since that’s the case, about half of you are without a team to root for the rest of the playoffs. Because of that, we’ll look at which former Fighting Illini players are still currently in the playoffs so some of you can be a little more invested in this week’s NFL Divisional playoff games.

Jihad Ward, DE – Baltimore Ravens

Ward is originally from Philadelphia and spent his first two years of college playing at the Globe Institute of Technology in New York. After visiting West Virginia, South Florida and Illinois, Ward committed to play for the Illini in 2014. It took four games, but he was finally named the starter at defensive end. In his two years at Illinois, Ward recorded 104 tackles, 4.5 sacks, five fumble recoveries, three forced fumbles, and three passes defensed.

Jihad Ward was drafted in the second round (44th overall) by the Oakland Raiders in the 2016 NFL Draft. After bouncing around from the Raiders to the Dallas Cowboys to the Indianapolis Colts, he seems to have finally found a home. Ward signed with the Ravens in 2019 and has seen good playing time this year.

This year, Ward has played in 10 total games for the Ravens. He has recorded three sacks, 16 tackles, and four tackles for loss. In last Sunday’s 20-13 win over the Tennessee Titans, Ward finished with three tackles and one tackle for loss. He also had a big play in which he batted down a Ryan Tannehill pass. Tannehill caught it and then was taken down for a loss by Ward.

You can watch Ward and the Ravens take on the Buffalo Bills on Saturday night at 7:15 p.m. CT. The game can be seen on NBC.

Del’Shawn Phillips, LB – Buffalo Bills

Although he won’t be available for the Bills on Saturday, there will be a former Illinois player on the opposite sideline from Ward. Del’Shawn Phillips is currently on injured reserve for the Bills. That being said, if you’re rooting for a former Illini player to win a Super Bowl ring, another choice could be the Bills.

Phillips is from Detroit. He originally committed to play at Western Michigan, but was ruled academically ineligible. He then enrolled at Garden City Community College. After two years there, he committed to play football at Arizona before he ultimately changing his mind to come play at Illinois. In his two years, he totaled 180 tackles, 2.5 sacks, four interceptions, and one fumble forced.

Phillips went undrafted in the 2019 NFL Draft. He was then signed by the Atlanta Falcons as an undrafted free agent before getting waived during final roster cuts. He was then signed to the Buffalo Bills’ practice squad later that year. Phillips made his NFL debut this year against the New York Jets in the opener. He’s appeared in two games on special teams.

Nick Allegretti, G – Kansas City Chiefs

Allegretti is originally from Frankfort, Ill., where he attended Lincoln-Way East High School. He was a three-star athlete out of high school. Nick Allegretti had a ton of interest as a recruit but ultimately only had offers from Illinois, Cincinnati, Northern Illinois, and Toledo.

He went on to have a fantastic college career with the Illini. After redshirting his freshman year, he then played in 48 consecutive games, including starting those last 36 on the offensive line.

Allegretti was selected in the seventh round of the 2019 NFL Draft by the Kansas City Chiefs. He played in seven games during his rookie season. He was a part of the Super Bowl LIV champions last year when Kansas City defeated the San Francisco 49ers, 31-20. Allegretti appeared in 16 games this season, starting in nine of those.

The Chiefs had a first-round bye last weekend. You can watch Allegretti and the Chiefs take on the Cleveland Browns on Sunday at 2:05 p.m. CT. This game can be seen on CBS.

Justin Hardee, CB – New Orleans Saints

Justin Hardee signed to Illinois as a three-star prospect out of Cleveland. Some of the offers he held included Illinois, Toledo, Akron, Bowling Green, Eastern Michigan, Marshall, and Ohio. He played in 28 career games for the Illini at wide receiver. Hardee finished his career with 72 receptions, for 841 yards and one touchdown.

Hardee went undrafted in the 2017 NFL Draft. He was later signed as an undrafted free agent by the Houston Texans. After being waived by Houston, he was picked up by New Orleans just five days later. He transitioned over to defensive back after joining the Saints’ practice squad. He has since developed into a great special teams player, while also filling in on defense when called upon.

Hardee has appeared in 56 regular season games in his career, totaling 47 tackles with two tackles for loss. He’s also recorded an interception for a 77-yard return, adding two passes defensed as well.

Hardee didn’t record any stats while playing on special teams against the Chicago Bears last weekend. You can watch Hardee and the Saints take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at 5:40 p.m CT on Sunday. The contest airs on FOX.