CHAMPAIGN — Brandon Peters will make the trip to Virginia.
But don’t expect the sixth-year senior to start at quarterback for Illinois on Saturday against the Cavaliers.
Bret Bielema said Thursday afternoon Art Sitkowski will get the start under center for the Illini (1-1) when they kick off against Virginia (1-0) at 10 a.m. at Scott Stadium. It’s the second straight start for Sitkowski, a 6-foot-5, 225-pound sophomore transfer from Rutgers.
Bielema said Peters will be a “game-time decision.” Peters injured his non-throwing left shoulder early on during the Illini’s 30-22 win against Nebraska on Aug. 28 and hasn’t played since.
Bielema also announced Thursday that running back Mike Epstein will be out on Saturday after leaving the Texas San Antonio game last Saturday night with an injury in the fourth quarter.
Bielema declined to share specifics of the injury.
“He’s still going through an evaluation process,” Bielema said. “Don’t know how long or what the projection is, but he won’t be with us on this trip.”
The Fort Lauderdale, Fla., native has been an efficient option in the backfield for Illinois when healthy. In 2020, he averaged 5.3 yards per carry, going for 367 yards and four touchdowns on 69 carries. Epstein rushed for 75 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries against Nebraska, but the fifth-year senior has also had three season-ending injuries at Illinois.
Backfield reinforcements are on the way, though. Both Chase Brown and Chase Hayden are set to play against Virginia after missing the UTSA game with injuries.
Hayden suffered a left ankle injury on Sept. 1, but Bielema hasn’t disclosed what injury Brown sustained. Brown led Illinois with 540 rushing yards last season, but only has five carries for 24 yards, all against Nebraska.
“We’ll also have Chase Brown back with us. Chase Hayden, as well,” Bielema said. “Obviously, the continued emergence of Josh McCray, Reggie Love, Jakari Norwood, there’s a lot of different guys in there at the tailback position.”
Illinois offensive coordinator Tony Petersen has elected to rotate running backs through the system, rather than give one player the majority of the load.
Norwood, Love and McCray all had at least four carries against UTSA, with McCray going for 21 yards in his Illinois debut. The 6-1, 240-pound true freshman gave the Illini a change-of-pace, power back after Epstein left the game in the fourth quarter.
Illinois will be without playmaking defensive end Keith Randolph for at least this Saturday after he left the UTSA game with a leg injury.
Bielema estimated that Randolph could be ready to return in time for the Maryland home game on Sept. 17 or at Purdue on Sept. 25 on his Wednesday night radio show, and said Thursday Randolph should be back “hopefully within the next couple of weeks.”
The 6-5, 300-pound redshirt freshman from Belleville has 2 1/2 tackles for loss, a forced fumble and one sack through two games, and he has been one of the defense’s most disruptive linemen.
Illinois will get another boost on offense now that two talented options are available in former Notre Dame receiver/running back Jafar Armstrong and former Miami wide receiver Brian Hightower, who was injured in the team’s final scrimmage before the Nebraska game. Both players have yet to play this season.
“(Armstrong) was a guy we were kind of excited to get back. He’s been out of practice the last few weeks,” Bielema said. “I think it was a calf strain, something that was soft tissue that kept him out.”
Hightower finished the 2020 season tied for the Illini team lead in touchdown receptions, with three, making 11 catches for 209 yards. The 6-3, 215-pound Hightower gives the offense a critical target out on the edge. Bielema said he was “heavily used” in Thursday’s practice.
Armstrong, for his part, was an explosive backfield option at Notre Dame before moving to receiver once he arrived at Illinois.
“Jafar is a very big, physical, imposing receiver that has great speed (and) has good vertical speed,” Bielema said. “Has kind of been a guy that showed up in a couple practices (and) made some really good deep-ball catches.”