Illinois may be short at back for bowl

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Illinois may be thin at running back for its New Year's Eve bowl game against UCLA.

Interim head coach Vic Koenning said starting fullback Jay Prosch is hospitalized with a staph infection while starting tailback Jason Ford may be academically ineligible for the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. Prosch was hospitalized Dec. 14, Illinois sports information director Kent Brown said, and had surgery on one of his knees to fight the infection.

Prosch is recovering but Brown isn't sure when he will leave the hospital. Brown and Koenning said it wasn't clear how or where Prosch, a sophomore from Mobile, Ala., was infected.

"You never know -- it could come from the locker room, it could come from the shower, it could come from grass," Brown said.

None of Illinois' other players have been infected, Brown said. Locker room and training facilities, he said, are regularly sanitized but he wasn't sure how recently that had happened.

Koenning doesn't yet know if Ford -- the team's leading rusher with 600 yards on 155 carries -- will be eligible. Koenning added that one of Ford's backups, freshman Josh Ferguson, is expected to apply for a redshirt after missing much of the season with injury.

That would leave Illinois (6-6) with two tailbacks who regularly played this season: senior Troy Pollard, a backup with 462 yards on 62 carries, and Donovonn Young, a freshman who had 406 yards on 75 carries. Young missed the last regular season game with an ankle injury.

Otherwise, Koenning said, many of Illinois' players appear fresher now than they have since camp.

"It's been good to see some guys getting their legs back," said Koenning. "We look a lot, lot faster than what we've been."

The news came as new coach Tim Beckman announced that he had hired Mike Ward and Alex Golesh from his staff at Toledo. Beckman was hired earlier this month after Ron Zook was fired but won't take over the team until next year. Koenning turned down an offer to stay on as defensive coordinator job but so far hasn't said where he's headed.

Beckman said he has hired most of his staff, including the defensive coordinator's spot, but won't release names yet because all are with teams headed to bowl games. He said Ward, who was a co-defensive coordinator at Toledo, won't run the defense at Illinois and Golesh will coordinate recruiting but held off on announcing their other duties.

Also Tuesday, Beckman said he's talking to four defensive starters who could leave early for the NFL draft: defensive end Whitney Mercilus, a junior who leads the nation with 14½ sacks; junior defensive back Terry Hawthorne; sophomore defensive lineman Akeem Spence; and junior defensive end Michael Buchanan.

"I hope they all four stay because they're outstanding individuals," Beckman said.