RANTOUL, Ill. - Given that the injury bug seems to have a taste for Illinois football’s most talented players, Tim Beckman obviously was a little nervous when freshman running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn left Saturday’s scrimmage on crutches.
Vaughn, who has been a standout during training camp and is the obvious leader for the No. 2 running back job behind senior starter Josh Ferguson, was hit low on his left ankle on an incomplete swing pass midway through Saturday’s scrimmage at Memorial Stadium. He limped off the field, but trainers iced his ankle and Vaughn used crutches to get to the locker room.
“It happened on a throw that was outside,” Beckman said. “You’re like, ‘Oh, just stay up.’ But it just happened. But we knew that it was fine. It was more of a precautionary thing. We expect him back here shortly.”
Vaughn wore a red jersey, signifying an injury, during Monday morning’s practice. He watched some positional drills but did not participate in team drills. He worked out on the side with trainers, gingerly favoring his left ankle.
While his return date is unknown, it was a positive just to see Vaughn on his feet getting some work in on Monday.
“I’m not sure of a timeline,” Beckman said. “Hopefully, it’ll be tomorrow.”
Injuries already have stricken the Illini roster. The team lost starting strongside defensive end Jihad Ward for two games (he will undergo a minor surgery on his knee on Tuesday), senior receiver Justin Hardee for a few games (broken foot) and sophomore standout receiver Mikey Dudek (torn ACL this spring) until at least October, if not the entire season. Freshman running back Dre Brown and freshman safety Patrick Nelson each will miss the entire season after each suffered a torn ACL this spring.
Senior linebacker Mason Monheim sat out Saturday’s scrimmage and was wearing a walking boot to nurse a minor ankle injury. On Monday, he went through an individual workout with ease. Beckman said the team is just being cautious with the team’s leading tackler and most experienced player.
Illini tight ends coach Alex Golesh had some good news on the injury front: his top two players look healthy. Junior starter Tyler White was a full-go at practice after missing most of last week with a bad case of the flu and junior college transfer Andrew Davis (ankle) also practiced in a limited contact green jersey.
Given those injury issues, there was a moment of worry when reporters couldn’t spot Ferguson early during Monday’s session. But that’s because Ferguson was going incognito, switching out his No. 6 jersey for No. 18, Dudek’s number.
“Quite honestly, my jersey was dirty,” Ferguson said. “So they gave me Mikey’s. It was pretty cool to rock his number.”
Illinois has tried to keep its offensive stars jerseys clean. Ferguson and starting quarterback Wes Lunt participated in under a dozen live plays during Saturday’s scrimmage. The Illini are limiting hits to two players they can’t afford to lose to a preseason injury.
“It’s a little hard, but you just got to trust the plan,” said Ferguson, whose carries on Saturday went to backups Vaughn, Henry Enyenihi, Reggie Corbin, and Kendrick Foster. “Being a guy that worked his way up and now has to sit out (during some drills) now that he is the starter is a little hard. But you learn what the coaches are trying to do and why, it’s easy.”
Lunt on Saturday quickly gave way to a battle of the backups with freshmen Chayce Crouch, Jimmy Fitzgerald and Jeff George Jr. receiving most of the reps.
“Especially quarterback; the more reps, the better you’re gonna get,” Lunt said. “It’s hard not being able to play, but I completely understand what the coaches are doing. I’ve gotten more reps than all three of those guys combined just during the camp.”
Ferguson and Lunt made the most of their few reps on Saturday. During red zone drills against the second-string defense, Ferguson ran for a touchdown and Lunt tossed about four touchdown passes -- in about 10 plays.
“We were effective when we were out there,” Lunt said. “We were all joking about that. It was an efficient day.”
The Illini used most of Saturday’s two-plus hour scrimmage to look at their young players. Inexperience resulted in some mistakes and some promise.
“Few too many penalties, I think everyone saw that,” Beckman said. “I was happy to see some guys step up because we didn’t have certain guys practicing just precautionary-wise. It was good seeing some new faces out there making plays.”
Beckman said Vaughn “was impressive” before his injury. He also mentioned cornerback Cameron Watkins, linebacker Julian Jones and offensive lineman Gabe Megginson as true freshman standouts from the scrimmage.
Former QBs fill in for Cubits
Illinois was supposed to have its final two-a-day on Monday, but Beckman changed the double session to Tuesday so that offensive coordinator Bill Cubit and his son, Illini quarterbacks coach Ryan Cubit, could participate.
The Cubits flew to Philadelphia early Sunday, a scheduled off day for Illinois, to attend the funeral services of Bill’s mother and Ryan’s grandmother, Loretta. They missed Monday's practice but will be back on Tuesday.
On Monday, former Illini quarterback Reilly O’Toole, now a graduate assistant, helped coach the running backs while former Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, now the assistant director of football operations, helped coach the quarterbacks. The NCAA granted Illinois a waiver to allow Scheelhaase, who normally would be prohibited from coaching on the field, to give on-field instruction for the day.
“It was good to have those guys back,” Beckman said. “The NCAA allowed it because of the situation with … Grandma Cubit. So it was good that they got to get out there and help us.”
Lunt said it’s good to have both quarterbacks in the program again. The Illini junior said each provides a great resource but neither gets in the way of him taking over as the leader of the offense.
“Both of them calm me down or calm us quarterbacks down when we’re having a hard day, which is just huge,” Lunt said. “They’re there if I need them. That’s the good thing about them. They don’t come up and tell me every little thing. But they’re always there for help.”