Illini secondary waits for key players to return

Illini secondary waits for key players to return

CHAMPAIGN — Illinois football has put the idea of "next man up" through its paces the first two weeks of the season with injuries and suspensions testing the Illini's depth. No position group had felt it more than the Illinois secondary by the second half of last Saturday night's 34-14 win against Western Illinois.

Illinois entered the game down four of its best defensive backs. Bennett Williams and Nate Hobbs continued serving their indefinite suspension, while Tony Adams (hand injury) and Delano Ware (undisclosed) also didn't play. As the game progressed, both Kerby Joseph (flagrant personal foul) and Cam Watkins (targeting) were ejected, and Sydney Brown went down with an injury.

Illinois could be in slightly better shape come Saturday's 2:30 p.m. kickoff against South Florida at Soldier Field in Chicago. Adams has his broken hand in a club and practiced both Tuesday and Wednesday alongside Ware.

Watkins will return in the second half against the Bulls after sitting out the first half because of his ejection against the Leathernecks.

But the Illini will likely still be without Williams, Hobbs, tight end Lou Dorsey, wide receiver Carmoni Green and defensive lineman Deon Pate. The five suspended players spent time on the scout team the last two days. Illinois coach Lovie Smith didn't provide a clear update earlier this week on their status and was requested, but not made available, after Wednesday's practice.

"Getting closer," Smith said Monday about the suspended players. "Hopefully you don't have a lot of suspensions, but injuries come up where you have to look at other players that maybe would have to wait a little bit longer. It's always about the next person up whatever reason a player can't play.

"Life goes on. That's why you're constantly developing not just your starters, but the bottom of your roster. ... We're just looking at the best guys that have proven to us, showed us, that they can help us, and you'll get an opportunity to play. When you get an opportunity, you've got to perform well."

Sophomore safety Michael Marchese certainly made the most of his opportunity against Western Illinois. The walk-on out of Vernon Hills made his first career start with both Williams and Ware unavailable, and he finished the game with three tackles, one pass breakup and his first career interception.

"It was surreal," Marchese said about his interception. "It was great coming to the sideline because I got mobbed. My teammates were so happy. That's what I like most — seeing my teammates happy."

Marchese has also heard plenty from his teammates about how the play ended after he picked off Western Illinois quarterback Sean McGuire. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound safety returned the interception 42 yards — three yards short of the end zone.

"That's on me," Marchese said with a smile. "I've got to get my Deion Sanders high step going, but I've been working on it."

Walk-on cornerback Nolan Bernat also had an interception against Western Illinois. Backup safety Dawson DeGroot blocked a punt. But Marchese said the Illinois secondary is looking forward to getting Williams and Hobbs back on the field when their indefinite suspension ends.

"When they come back, we're getting our reinforcements," Marchese said. "The competition is going to be higher in practice, and in the games we're going to ball."