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Illinois’ Jonathan Brown, Akeem Spence could make pro bolt

Updated: December 25, 2012 6:23AM

When Illinois finishes up at Northwestern on Saturday, seven defensive starters definitely will be playing their last game in orange and blue. The question is, will two more starters also be gone?

Junior linebacker Jonathan Brown and redshirt junior defensive tackle Akeem Spence are eligible to depart — and there’s sufficient NFL interest to make that decision very tempting for both.

That’s especially true because Illinois faces the prospect of another wobbly season in 2013, not exactly a chance to showcase skills or compete for a championship. The Illini have lost their last eight games this year and their last 13 Big Ten games.

With a big chunk gone from their defense, which was the strongest unit on a struggling team, and their two best offensive linemen, Graham Pocic and Hugh Thornton, also gone from a subpar offense, Illinois seems destined for a continued lack of success.

There’s always the possibility that coach Tim Beckman will rally the troops in his second season. But based on the usual returning-players evidence, it would rate as a major surprise.

There also have been whispers that some changes will be made on the coaching staff, which would come as no surprise on a team that’s 2-9 heading into its last game.

If Brown turns pro, he already has played his last game at Illinois. He’ll miss this finale with a shoulder injury. Beckman declined to say whether it will require surgery and added that it’s too early to speculate on whether Brown will go pro.

‘‘We never talk about that until the season’s over,’’ Beckman said. ‘‘But that will be talked about, no question. I’m a firm believer in gathering as much information as I can, and then let him make an educated decision.’’

It’s not clear how the shoulder injury will affect Brown’s NFL decision. Between the shoulder and an ankle injury that slowed him earlier, Brown failed to showcase himself by having the All-Big Ten season that was in his sights.

Spence, who pondered turning pro after last season, is projected to go in the second to fourth round on some draft websites. Brown is listed as a third/fourth-rounder.

Among Illinois seniors, defensive end Michael Buchanan, cornerback Terry Hawthorne and Pocic are expected to be no worse than middle-round picks. Thornton and defensive tackle Glenn Foster also could rate NFL looks.

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