Illinois starting senior defensive end Jihad Ward will miss the first two games of the season with an injury, Illini head coach Tim Beckman said Friday afternoon after practice. Beckman would not specify the injury -- "in fairness to him", Beckman said -- but said Ward will have surgery in the next couple days and miss the next three to four weeks.
That would mean Ward -- a 6-foot-6, 285-pound senior who is drawing looks from NFL scouts -- would miss the first two games, against MAC opponent Kent State and FCS opponent Western Illinois. Ward could return for the Illini's toughest nonconference game, a trip to North Carolina, on Sept. 19 and should be healthy by the start of Big Ten conference play in October.
"There's never a good time for anyone to get injured," Beckman said. "...He'll be back on the field when he's ready."
Beckman said Ward suffered the injury in a noncontact drill on Wednesday. Ward wore a red jersey, signifying an injury, at practice Thursday night and Friday but wore a helmet and shoulder pads and watched drills.
Illinois recently has been struck by a string of injuries to important players. Standout sophomore receiver Mikey Dudek (a Scout.com Freshman All-American after topping 1,000 yards receiving last season) suffered a torn ACL last spring (he'll be out until at least October, if he returns at all), as did freshman running back Dre Brown, who was expected to make an immediate impact but will now miss the entire season. Senior receiver Justin Hardee suffered a broken foot during offseason workouts and is expected to miss the first two games.
"We've had enough of those for now," Beckman said. "But it's part of the game, and that's why you have depth."
Illinois is already thin at the strongside defensive end position after sophomore Paul James III withdrew from the university. Backup Kenny Nelson also continues to recover from a shoulder injury and wore a limited contact green jersey on Friday. Junior LEO Dawuane Smoot has switched to strongside defensive end and Carroll Phillips has filled his spot at LEO.