CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Since he arrived at Illinois last year, coach Tim Beckman has said his team's biggest shortcoming is a lack of depth.
Three games into the season, the situation has only gotten worse.
Illinois (2-1) was missing several starters and key contributors on each side of the ball Saturday in a 44-0 win over Charleston Southern. They included quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, center Graham Pocic and running back Jason Ferguson, all starters.
"Guys in shorts and shirts on the sideline, this is the most I've ever been around in my entire life," the 47-year-old Beckman said Monday.
And after running the team through its first practice of the week on Sunday, Beckman wasn't overly optimistic any of them will play Saturday against Louisiana Tech.
"I can't say that anybody for sure right now (will be back)," he said. "We've had good treatment sessions this morning. That'll have to be determined as we go."
While missing any offensive starter would present a problem, it's the defensive absences that could lead to trouble against the Bulldogs. Safeties Steve Hull and Suppo Sanni and linebacker Houston Bates were all out against Charleston Southern. Another linebacker who was competing for a starting spot in the preseason, Henry Dickinson, is out for the year.
Louisiana Tech (2-0) is scoring 56 points a game, third best in the country. The Bulldogs, like the Arizona State team that punished Illinois in the season opener, move at high speed and squeeze in, on average, 83 offensive snaps a game.
"The thing that we're dealing with is depth, and being able to substitute players," Beckman said. "Players are going to have to step up and play."
Injuries have created openings so far this year for younger players like freshman linebacker Mason Monheim, who started for Bates last Saturday and had an interception that set up a touchdown.
But the Illini are relying on youth a lot more than they'd like. Before last Saturday's game, Illinois' defensive depth chart of players likely to play included 11 freshmen and sophomores.
"We have some youth on our depth chart, no question about it," Beckman said.
Against the Bulldogs, possession could give that thin Illinois defense an edge. But Scheelhaase's injury — an ankle sprain that's now kept him out for more than nine straight quarters — and the team's limited ability so far to consistently run the ball make Illinois' offense an unknown. The Illini are averaging 153 rushing yards a game, 70th in the country. And that stat is even padded by a 231-yard night at Arizona State.
Sophomore Reilly O'Toole started in Scheelhaase's place last week, threw for 333 yards and five touchdowns. But that was against a Football Championship Subdivision team that was seriously outmanned by Big Ten talent. In the 45-14 loss at Arizona State, O'Toole was 10-14 for 54 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
Scheelhaase, a junior who has been the starter for parts of the past three seasons, has practiced in each week since the injury against Western Michigan. And last week he said he thought he would play against Charleston Southern before Beckman eventually ruled him out.
The first-year Illinois coach says if Scheelhaase would have been healthy enough to play, he would have.
"We're not being cautious with anybody. He just wasn't ready," Beckman said. "We're not going to put anybody out there who isn't ready."
Follow David Mercer on Twitter: http://twitter.com/DavidMercerAP