URBANA — Illinois football was already feeling the pinch of depth issues at cornerback before Tuesday’s training camp practice.
Highly-touted freshman Marquez Beason going down with a knee injury early during the practice at the Campus Recreation Fields certainly didn’t help, along with Beason’s uncertain status moving forward with just three scholarship cornerbacks available.
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“It was a typical, routine play,” Illinois coach Lovie Smith said about Beason’s injury. “That’s all it is. The only way you can avoid plays like that is not practice and not play football, and we have to do that. Jump ball — just a basic play. I can’t describe it anymore. Basic play, he didn’t finish practice and we’ll see how it goes from there. Injuries happen. You move on is what you have to do.”
Beason’s injury happened during 1-on-1 drills between the defensive backs and wide receivers.
He went down in the far right corner of the end zone before being tended to by the Illinois athletic training staff and Smith. The 5-foot-11, 185-pound cornerback was carted off the field following the injury.
Beason ultimately came back to the field after some time in the medical tent to watch the rest of practice. But he was sporting a sizable black brace on his injured knee and needed a pair of crutches. The Dallas native seemed in better spirits when he came back to the field compared to when he was carted off, where he was visibly upset and in pain.
Smith called Beason’s injury “concerning” considering the four-star recruit and first commit in the 2018 class didn’t finish Tuesday’s practice. That didn’t give the Illini coach second thoughts, however, about protecting his thinning depth at cornerback.
“We play football; injuries happen,” Smith said. “You don’t want them to happen, but they do. All over America guys are getting hurt.”
Beason’s injury, though, amplifies Illinois’ depth issue in the secondary and particularly at cornerback. Both sophomore Dylan Wyatt and freshman Joseph Thompson have been held out of practice with their own injury concerns. So has walk-on redshirt junior Christian Bobak. Freshman Devon Witherspoon is now on the roster, but the Florida native was a late arrival to camp.
That leaves Smith with just scholarship cornerbacks Nate Hobbs, Quan Martin and Nick Walker available, along with walk-ons Nolan Bernat and Tailon Leitzsey.
“We don’t have a whole lot of depth,” Smith said. “Of course, with Marquez not being able to practice we’ll kind of keep seaching. Our numbers are low there.”
Smith might turn his attention beyond the Illinois secondary to address those depth concerns. He said he’ll be looking at the type of player at cornerback he likes — “athletic guys on our football team.”
“If you continue to need guys, you start looking elsewhere a little bit for guys also on our roster,” Smith continued. “We’re talking about guys who aren’t over on the defensive side right now. It’s about the depth of guys we don’t know about.
“When you have injuries in training camp, it kind of forces you as a coach to look at different options and continue to bring some of the younger players around. That’s what we’re getting a chance to do.”