CHAMPAIGN — Going into this college football season, one truth frightened Tim Beckman more than any other.
His first University of Illinois football team was perilously thin on depth.
There was no proven depth at wide receiver, running back or along the offense line. No depth at safety and little at linebacker. And no cushion at the kicking positions.
Three games into the season and the new Illini coach’s worst fears have come true. Illinois has taken multiple hits at all of those positions. For good measure, his starting quarterback has watched two of three games from the sideline.
All of which are keeping Beckman awake at night as he searches for answers.
“I haven’t slept at all,” Beckman said Saturday after Illinois had polished off Charleston Southern 44-0 at Memorial Stadium. “It’s just one of those things and you have to adapt. As a staff you may have to simplify things when you don’t have a veteran in there.”
Here’s a list of the major casualties who were unable to play by the end of the Charleston Southern victory:
— Starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was in uniform but was relegated to signaling plays after missing his second straight game with a left ankle injury. Beckman said he’ll continue to evaluate Scheelhaase’s readiness and will return him to the starting lineup if healthy, even though backup Reilly O’Toole had a record setting day against Charleston Southern.
O’Toole set an Illini record for single-game pass completion percentage by hitting on 26 of 31 passes (83.9 percent) good for 333 yards and five touchdowns. It was O’Toole’s second career start and his previous career high in passing yardage was 63 yards last season against Minnesota.
— Starting center Graham Pocic, regarded by coaches as the team’s best offensive lineman, missed the game after having his knee injured during a mid-week practice. Beckman said he expected Pocic to be available by 7 p.m., Saturday when Illinois plays host to 2-0 Louisiana Tech.
— Starting wide receiver Darrius Millines left the game early and did not return. He was spotted after the game with his arm in a sling and his availability this week is uncertain.
But with Millines out, and with the outcome secure, the Illini coaching staff rolled in a steady stream of young receivers including true freshman Justin Hardee, redshirt freshman Kenny Knight and sophomore Fritz Rock.
“They are young, they are learning and they are getting better every time we get them on the field,” Beckman said. “There is no way they can get better if you don’t get them involved in games.”
— Starting tailback Josh Ferguson was an unexpected scratch because of a blow to the head he suffered in the Arizona State game. That gave a bigger opportunity to true freshman Dami Ayoola, who carried eight times for 55 yards including a 28-yard touchdown run.
— Starting middle linebacker Houston Bates was withheld against Charleston Southern because of a leg injury. His replacement, true freshman Mason Monheim from Orrville, Ohio, made the game’s first tackle and two plays later picked off a pass to set up Illinois’ first touchdown.
“He really played a good game,” said veteran linebacker Jonathan Brown. “He stepped in when we needed him to step in. He made me proud of him today.”
— Safeties Suppo Sanni and Steve Hull continue to miss action, although Illinois seems to have cultivated capable backups in Earnest Thomas and Pat Nixon-Youman.
— And Nick Immekus, who kicks field goals and extra points, left the game after converting the first point-after touchdown boot. Beckman called it a (muscle) strain. Taylor Zalewski, who handles kickoffs, replaced Immekus and booted a 47-yard field goal.
Beckman hopes that by withholding players against Charleston Southern, it will accelerate their return this week against Louisiana Tech or in time for the Big Ten Conference opener Sept. 29 against Penn State.
“We just have to get some people healthy,” Beckman said.