By Gavin Good
Illinois football coach Lovie Smith announced Monday that right tackle Alex Palczewski and linebacker Tarique Barnes each suffered season-ending injuries in recent weeks.
Smith, who usually remains coy on the injury front, shared that Palczewski will have surgery this week, while Barnes had surgery last week. Each player had featured in significant roles for the Illini while healthy.
“Alex has been one of our best players, pretty much since he got on campus,” Smith said. “So when you lose a player like that, it hurts an awful lot. He’s been a team captain, he checks off every box as you’re judging a player.”
The senior made his team-high 40th-straight start at Rutgers, where he left the game with a lower leg injury and did not return.
Sophomore Julian Pearl, a Danville native, stepped in for Palczewski, making his first career start in his place at right tackle in the win at Nebraska.
Smith acknowledged that losing Palczewski hurts the team, but said he is confident in Pearl.
“(Alex) will be around in a different way,” Smith said. “With that, we realize that injuries can happen to anyone at any time, and you get a chance to see your depth. Julian Pearl has played now for a couple of weeks, and has played very good football. So now we can we all kind of know what it is. Alex will come back as strong as ever. But in the meantime, we’ll keep carrying on with Julian leading the way.”
Losing Barnes, who was injured in the win at Nebraska, is a significant development for an Illini defense that has struggled at times throughout the 2020 season.
Barnes made his first career start at Rutgers, and in his second start at Nebraska, he made the first interception of his career. In a blowout loss at Wisconsin to start the year, Barnes was a bright spot for Illinois after stepping in at middle linebacker for Jake Hansen.
He recovered a fumble early in the first half, returning it for a touchdown, while also registering a sack.
Illinois defensive back Tony Adams was impressed with Barnes’ development so far in his second college season, and he’s optimistic that Barnes can make a big impact when he returns.
“He’s a good football player,” Adams said. “Will be a great football player pretty soon. I saw the strides when he was out there, just making plays.”
Both Palczewski (a senior) and Barnes (a sophomore) will retain their eligibility and can return next season at their current status because of the NCAA’s decision not to count this season against players’ eligibility because of the COVID-19 pandemic.