CHAMPAIGN — Until Wednesday, Joe Spencer was one of many nondescript young players relegated to the Illini football shadows.
He was a redshirt freshman offensive lineman, a kid who just turned 19 in June and whose claim to fame is that his hometown — Mason, Ohio — is home to Kings Island amusement park and one of the coolest wooden roller coasters in captivity, The Beast.
But is understated Joe Spencer a beast?
We’re about to find out.
A single injury on the offensive line — one that put starting guard Ted Karras in a cumbersome walking boot — triggered a stunning overhaul of what had been one of the most stable units on the Illini team.
Karras went down on Tuesday, and head coach Tim Beckman said he was examined by doctors Tuesday night and was scheduled Wednesday to undergo “another MRI to make sure that thing is healthy.”
But one injury does not necessarily mean just one change. So when practice began on the grass fields east of Memorial Stadium Wednesday morning, only left tackle Simon Cvijanovic was still holding down his starting spot.
Spencer had slid into the starting spot at left guard. Alex Hill, who until this day had been the starting center, shifted over to right guard. Jake Feldmeyer, a senior from Centerville, Ohio, moved from backup to starting center. And because sixth-year senior Corey Lewis needs protection from injury more than he needs reps, Michael Heitz moved from guard to right tackle.
Just a few days ago, Lewis had been thinking about the injury-plagued fate of the offensive line last year, then smiled when he realized how different it has been throughout this training camp. “It’s really nice to be out there every day with all five guys in place,” he said.
Now, with nine days to go until the season opener against Southern Illinois, Beckman and his offensive staff are scrambling to find the combination that best overcomes the loss of Karras. But in some respects, this has been the plan all along because Beckman, offensive line coach A.J. Ricker and offensive coordinator Bill Cubit knew that sooner or later, a team with little depth, would have to lean on inexperienced backups including some true freshmen.
It’s the curse of having a dangerously thin roster.
“Your whole goal as a coach is to get your best 11 out there on the football field, however you can do that,” Beckman said. “We went through that last year. We had to move (Graham) Pocic around. There are certain guys who can play multiple positions until we get the depth built in this program, that’s the situation we’re going to have to deal with.
“Because of our lack of depth, you’re going to see faces in there who have to step up and play. We’re going to have two freshmen tackles that have to get reps and they have to get them with the (first team). And there are guards who need reps.”
At this point, Spencer is not capable of playing tackle. Even though he played center in high school, his practice time has been at guard. So when he was designated as the “next man up,” he moved in and the shuffling rippled across the line.
Spencer knew once Karras went down, his football life was changing.
“When I woke up this morning it felt a little different because I wondered if I was going to play all right guard today, or if I’d be on the left side,” said Spencer, who is listed at 6-4, 290. “When I came in I found out it was left guard, and Heitz pulled me aside and said, ‘It’s the same thing we’ve been doing all camp.’ So it’s not a big worry.”
Spencer believes he’s ready if called upon to start and said he spent much of the summer preparing for this opportunity, working with the first-team and the second-team, learning both guard positions and concentrating on the kind of player he wants to be.
“I would say my strength is studying the game,” he said. “I was kind of a smart kid in high school. I try to correlate that to the field. But my big emphasis here has been to be more physical. Don’t think too much and just attack the guy. So that’s what I’ve been working on all summer. I pride myself on that.”
Cubit shrugged off the offensive line changes and said mixing and matching personnel to fill holes is just par for the course.
“I’ve always done it,” he said. “I would venture to say that every coach in the country says they don’t have enough offensive line depth. I’ve heard the pro scouts say the same thing. It’s universal.”
NOTES: Spencer is one of 17 Illini football players from Ohio. Former head coach Ron Zook was from Ohio and recruited the state heavily and Beckman is from Ohio and coached at both Ohio State and Toledo. So he has made the state a focal point of his recruiting.
...Wide receiver Steve Hull was back at practice Wednesday after being limited with a hamstring injury.
...Beckman’s early take on opening opponent SIU: “I’ve been impressed with the way they play and their talent. And we know when you are playing an in-state program, you’re going to get their best shot.”