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Illinois’ Akeem Spence headed to NFL

Illinois' Akeem Spence left Martez Wilstackle Northwestern's KaColter during second quarter an NCAA college football game Wrigley Field Chicago Saturday

Illinois' Akeem Spence, left, and Martez Wilson tackle Northwestern's Kain Colter during the second quarter of an NCAA college football game at Wrigley Field in Chicago on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2010. Illinois won 48-27. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

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Akeem Spence will forego his last year of eligibility at Illinois to enter the NFL draft, the junior defensive tackle announced Friday.

The Fort Walton Beach, Fla., native started every game the last three years after redshirting in 2009. He was third in tackles (72) and tied for second in tackles-for-loss (7) this fall, and was All-Big Ten honorable mention. That included 11 tackles, seven solos and two TFLs, all career highs, in his final Illinois appearance, at Northwestern.

The 6-1, 305-pound Spence, who will graduate on Saturday with a degree in communications, has been projected as a third- to fourth-round prospect by some online scouting services.

``I would like to thank the University of Illinois for giving me an opportunity to become a great student-athlete,’’ Spence said in a statement. ``The current and past coaching staffs have been very supportive. My family and I look forward to the journey ahead.’’

Spence is the eighth Illinois player in the last six years to enter the draft with eligibility remaining. The previous seven all were taken in the first three rounds, including four first-rounders, tied with Florida and USC for the second-most first-round picks. Only Alabama (9) has had more. Spence is the third defensive linemen to leave Illinois early in as many years. He follows Corey Liuget (2010) and Whitney Mercilus (2011), who both were first-round picks.

``We wish Akeem nothing but the best,’’ Illini coach Tim Beckman said. ``He’s worked very hard on the field and in the classroom to put himself in this position.’’

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