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Bears draft preview: Illini S Clayton Fejedelem underdog again

Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett (16) tries to avoid a tackle by Illinois defensive back Clayton Fejedelem (20) during the first half of an NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015, in Champaign, Ill. Ohio State won 28-3. (AP Photo/Bradley Leeb) ORG XMIT: ILBL127

Part 3 of the Sun-Times’ 10-part, position-by-position preview of the NFL Draft, which starts April 28 at the Auditorium Theatre:

Clayton Fejedelem wasn’t invited to the NFL Scouting Combine.

In quieter moments, it bothered him. Despite finishing fifth in the nation in total tackles last year, the Illini safety’s name wasn’t on the who’s-who list of draftees in February.

“I wasn’t recruited — I didn’t get a lot of hype around me,” Fejedelem said. “So I knew … when I didn’t get into the Combine, that it was another thing that I unfortunately didn’t get.”

He’s used to taking the long road, though.

After graduating from Lemont High School, he enrolled at NAIA St. Xavier, where he won a national title as a freshman and went 11-2 as a sophomore. Two seasons — and 155 tackles, eight interceptions and 17 pass breakups — later, he decided he could play major college football.

He walked on at Illinois, redshirted in 2013 and finally got a scholarship in the middle of his junior season.

“It wasn’t a sense of relief for me until after the season, but it was immediate relief for my family,” he said. “My mom, when I transferred and was leaving a full ride at my university to become a walk-on, she was, ‘We’ll make it work.’”

He didn’t start until the final game of junior year. Then, as a senior, the 6-foot, 204-pounder averaged 11.7 tackles per game. Only four players in the nation — and only one in major-college football — could claim more.

He trained at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., after the Illini’s 5-7 season. In late January, he recorded an interception in the East-West Shrine Game.

Still, no Combine invitation.

“The thing I was most mad about missing,” he said, “was the one-on-one interviews with all the teams.”

Fejedelem takes comfort in his pro day performance last month. He ran a 4.53 40-yard dash, which would have been tied for fourth among safeties at the Combine. His 40 1/2 –inch vertical would have tied for seventh among all Combine participants.

Fejedelem hopes he can speak with Bears officials after he participates in Thursday’s local pro day at Halas Hall. He grew up a Bears fan.

“It’s great whenever you can put a face to a name,” he said. “I’m definitely going to go there and do everything they want me to do and hopefully afterward sit down and talk to a few of the coaches.“

He’ll travel to meet the Giants on Sunday and the Bengals on April 20. He’ll sell, among other things, his special teams ability. He played on all four units as a junior and two as a senior.

If anything, he said, he knows the pressures of being a pro.

His senior season started when head coach Tim Beckman was fired in August. The melodrama affected the team on a daily basis, he said, if not on the field.

He said it was hard to read and hear unflattering reports.

“There was so much negativity about Illinois football,” he said. “I think the first time I’ve seen anything positive was when they picked up coach Lovie Smtih …

“As a pro, you have to fight through that kind of adversity.”

POSITION SPOTLIGHT: SAFETY

Rating the Bears’ need: High.

The Bears found one safety last offseason, and know they eventually need to land another.

Adrian Amos was the surprise of the season, starting all 16 games after being drafted in the fifth round by GM Ryan Pace.

Veteran Antrel Rolle was supposed to be a steady contributor, too, after signing a three-year, $11.25 million deal. The three-time Pro Bowler had missed one game since 2007— and then sat out nine in 2015 due to injury.

The Bears can walk away from Rolle — with no penalty — if they find a long-term partner for Amos. Even the three-time Pro Bowler bounces back, he’s 33 and can’t be considered a permanent solution. The Bears could always develop a safety behind Rolle by converting a college cornerback, a league-wide trend.

Chris Prosinski, who started five times last year, and former Broncos safety Omar Bolden each signed one-year deals with the Bears this offseason; both profile as special teamers. Second-year player Harold Jones-Quartey, who started four games last season, provides depth.

Best of the best

Jalen Ramsey is the best safety in the draft — but he’s also probably the best cornerback, too, and could land there after starring as Florida State’s boundary corner last year.

After Ramsey — who could be drafted in the top five — the safety position thins out dramatically. Vonn Bell, a two-year starter at Ohio State, sits atop the next tier of players. He posted nine interceptions in his three-year career.

Other options

Florida’s Keanu Neal is thus far the only pure safety who will attend the draft at the Auditorium Theatre. Names who figure to be drafted on Day 2 include Clemson’s T.J. Green, Boise State’s Darian Thompson and LSU’s Jalen Mills.

Some think USC outside linebacker Su’a Cravens could play the hybrid safety/linebacker spot, too.