CHAMPAIGN - Teko Powell will undergo season-ending surgery on his foot next week in Indianapolis, Illini head coach Tim Beckman said Thursday after practice.
Powell and his family opted for surgery to repair the fractured fifth metatarsal in his right foot rather than re-evaluating the injury after six weeks of rest.
Powell had suffered the same injury to the same bone near his right pinky toe twice previously in the past two seasons. He missed all but two games last season due to the injury and received a medical hardship waiver. This will be his second straight lost season.
"He's had a hard time, a real hard time," Beckman said.
Powell, who entered the season with two years of eligibility remaining, is expected to continue his college career. He may again petition the NCAA for a medical redshirt in an effort to gain a sixth year of eligibility.
"We hope he can be a little like Corey Lewis," Beckman said, referring to the former Illini offensive tackle who received a sixth year of eligibility after suffering three ACL tears during his Illini career (he suffered a fourth during his final season and played through it without telling the medical staff). "We'd love to see him have the opportunity maybe for a sixth year. Teko Powell is a great, great kid. You feel for him because he has done everything to get himself ready for this year. Hopefully, we're going to look at the bright side of things and say, 'Hey, I might get an extra year.'"
Powell's injury steals Illinois of what was its best depth at defensive tackle in many seasons. Junior Chunky Clements and Rob Bain -- expected to play starters' reps regardless -- will start, but they will be backed up by two players with no college experience: redshirt freshman Tito Odenigbo and true freshman Jamal Milan.
"Tito has gotten better and better and proved through spring ball that he can play," Beckman said. "Jamal Milan is a freshman, but he's going to be a special player."
Beckman added that senior starting defensive lineman Jihad Ward, who was once expected to miss two games after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery last week, "really looks good" in his recovery and could "have an opportunity maybe (to play) earlier than we think."
Ward, the starting strongside defensive end, possibly could play Week 1, a source told IlliniInquirer.com on Wednesday. He could move inside on some downs and play defensive tackle.
When asked about his running backs during the spring, Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit sounded a bit shaky in his confidence of the backups. He expressed a lot more optimism on Thursday.
Cubit and the Illini staff have expressed excitment over freshman running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn, who has appeared every bit of the four stars he received as a recruit, since he arrived on campus in June. He will receive immediate reps as the No. 2 running back.
But junior college transfer Henry Enyenihi's transformation since spring practice is also easing Cubit's concerns at the position following season-ending injuries to freshmen Dre Brown and Reggie Corbin.
"I think Henry's really had a good camp," Cubit said. "I think he's one of the most improved guys over there. Henry's a really good player. At one point, you look there (at running back) and you're really, really scared, and now you look and you say, 'We're OK' -- barring injury. I think they're playing pretty well."
Positive performances from the backups would allow the staff to use senior starter Josh Ferguson in different roles, including slot receiver. Vaughn (5-foot-10, 205 pounds) and Enyenihi (5-foot-11, 215 pounds) each add something different.
"Ke'Shawn can be physical, but he's got a little bit more shake to him than Henry," Cubit said." But what I really like about Henry is that he's really learned. He knows where the unblocked guy is, where he can get in to holes, and he's got a great attitude. That's a good room. I really enjoy that room."
Freshmen WRs to play
Vaughn and Milan surely will play this season. Add two more to the list of freshmen who won't redshirt.
Cain (5-foot-10) will back up junior wideout Dionte Taylor in the slot. The spot normally would be occupied for injured sophomore Mikey Dudek, who could return midway through the season or miss the entire season.
Mays will back up one of the perimeter receiver spots. The 6-foot-3 Texas native made one of the biggest impacts among true freshmen during training camp.
"We'll play him too because he's a pretty good matchup," Cubit said. "You see in the scoring zone, and he goes down and makes two of them in the air. Having two of them with him and G-Mo at that height, it's pretty good."
The Illini would like to redshirt the rest of the true freshmen. Offensive tackle Gabe Megginson has repped with the second string, but the Illini staff would likely only play him if injuries occurred. Freshman quarterback Jimmy Fitzgerald and linebacker Julian Jones likely are on the third string and would probably only play due to injuries. Freshmen tight end Caleb Reams also may have a chance to play after an impressive camp.