Injuries stacking up for Illinois football

When asked to assess his team after Saturday’s victory, Tim Beckman’s response was simple.

“Not healthy,” the Illinois football coach said.

Six starters were held out of “Saturday’s game”: against Charleston Southern with injury: quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, center Graham Pocic, running back Josh Ferguson, linebacker Houston Bates and safeties Steve Hull and Supo Sanni. Sophomore kicker Nick Immekus left the game with a muscle pull, and wide receiver Darius Millines, who injured his ankle last week, played sparingly and was wearing a sling on his left shoulder on the sideline.

“Guys are getting hurt right and left,” junior defensive tackle Akeem Spence said. “It’s football, so guys are going to get nicked here and there. They’ve just got to get in the training room, get treatment and bounce back.”

While it’s likely several players held out would have played had the opponent been different — Charleston Southern hasn’t won a game since November 2010 — the Illini injuries are still stacking up.

“I haven’t slept at all,” Beckman said. “You look out there, and you see that you’ve got young men that are injured. They don’t want to be injured; I mean nobody wants to be injured. It’s just one of those things that you have to adapt to, and you have to push your young players to perform.”

Despite the crowded training room, the Illini cruised to a 44-0 victory over the FCS opponent, and several young backups had an opportunity to stand out. Ten Illini played the first game of their collegiate careers, and several freshmen had breakout games, including wide receiver Justin Hardee, who caught five passes for 98 yards; running back Dami Ayoola, who rushed for 55 yards and his first touchdown; and linebacker Mason Monheim, who recorded his first career interception.

Freshmen players are not available to the media until the start of the Big Ten season.

“Obviously you can depend on the seniors, but only for so long,” defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. “We have to make sure we have guys that can help us in the future and that future might be this year.”

Depth has been a concern of the coaching staff’s since the spring, and the Illini have been looking for younger players to step up and alleviate those concerns. The Illini two-deep depth chart is littered with youth with 23 freshmen and sophomores.

“We’re gonna recruit players who are gonna come in and play and not sit and watch,” Beckman said. “That’s just what we do, we’re gonna play a lot of players.”

It remains to be seen how much the fresh faces will be seen down the stretch, particularly against tougher competition, but co-offensive coordinator Chris Beatty said they would have still been in the mix had this weekend’s game been a Big Ten matchup.

“They need to,” Beatty said. “That’s part of developing a program. I talk to our guys about being a program and not just a team. Teams are good every third or fourth year when they have an older group. We want to be that team that reloads every year. And a way to develop depth is to be able to play those guys.”

Scheelhaase said he “expected to play”: against Charleston Southern, so he should be ready to go next weekend, and it’s likely that a few others will return from injury against a higher-caliber opponent in Louisiana Tech.

“We get treatment every day, guys coming in doing what they need to do to get better and getting their bodies back in order,” junior wide receiver Ryan Lankford said. “By game time, we should be up and rolling again.”

Chad can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @cthornburg10.