Illies close to full speed, but consecutive games streak in jeopardy

FARGO — Walking became a chore for North Dakota State tight end Jeff Illies in the days after he suffered a knee injury in practice. Even more hazardous to his health was the thought of his senior season blowing up before it started.

Hopes of saving his best year for last turned to visions of worst-case scenarios.

“When it’s hard to walk, it just seems like it’s going to be a long time before you actually run,” Illies said.

The injury happened during a dark two-day period in Bison practice when the Bison lost standout defensive end Greg Menard to an ACL injury for the season. Illies, who endured his injury first, was blocking on a running play when another player got blocked into him. Nobody fell over in the no-tackle format but Illies’ cleats were planted firmly into the ground at the exact moment, and the result was a partially torn MCL and some cartilage damage.

“It was just fear of the worst,” he said. “ACL or whatever — that’s the first thing that pops into your head.”

It happened before practice was a week old.

Illies is the top receiving threat at tight end who was at times lethal last year. Displaying speed and agility at 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, he was a mismatch nightmare for defensive backs when spread out wide. He tied for the team lead with five touchdown receptions. He had 20 catches on the season.

He was a second team all-Missouri Valley Football Conference pick and enters his last year of eligibility with 45 straight career games played. That streak will probably end — his prognosis for the season opener Sept. 2 against Mississippi Valley State appears iffy at best.

He’s not expected to go full speed in practice until next week, he said. He’s back to near full speed, but has yet to plant and cut on his knee.

“The goal initially when it happened was to get back for Eastern Washington,” Illies said in reference to the Sept. 9 clash of highly-ranked FCS teams in Cheney, Wash.

Being on the sideline, however, has not been without some benefit. He’s been able to help the younger players and is learning a lot himself just by watching. And now that NDSU is in game preparation for Mississippi Valley, he’s been able to point some things out to the veterans, too.

“They’re probably the same mistakes I would be making, but I’m able to see them and help those guys,” Illies said. “It’s given me a different perspective, being able to watch those guys compete rather than being out there with them.”