CHAMPAIGN — Before he was head coach for nine seasons with the Chicago Bears and two seasons for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Lovie Smith ran the defense for the St. Louis Rams.

From 2001 to 2003, Smith was defensive coordinator for a team that won the 2001 NFC championship and landed in the Super Bowl. He knows a thing or two about operating a defense on game day.

Smith, now head coach at the University of Illinois, could return to that role this week because Illinois’ defensive coordinator, Hardy Nickerson, had to return to California after his mother died unexpectedly on Sunday.

Smith said Monday he’s not sure how long Nickerson will be gone, but he looks likely to miss much of the week while the Illini prepare for Saturday’s home game against Indiana (11 a.m., Big Ten Network).

“We won’t see Hardy around much this week,” Smith said. “We’ll have a plan to deal with it. When anything happens, I tell them to go take care of your family. The rest of us will take care of things around here.

“We’re working through things. I have called a couple of defensive games. We’ll be OK.”

Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said the entire coaching staff has reached out to Nickerson, who will be responsible for making all of the funeral arrangements in California.

“Whenever you lose one of your main guys, you have to pull together a little tighter,” McGee said. “We were all in contact with him last night. To go through that at a moment like this is really hard, but he knows if he needs anything we’ll all be out there.”

Meanwhile, an Illini team that has lost seven games in a row and has a young and thin roster is now dealing with a substantial number of injuries.

A total of 18 players missed Saturday’s loss at Purdue. Of that number, 12 have started and a 13th, linebacker Jake Hansen, was on track to start before he suffered a season-ending knee injury prior to the season opener.

The missing players include four running backs (Mike Epstein, Ra’Von Bonner, Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown), two linebackers (Tre Watson and Julian Jones), three wide receivers (Mike Dudek, Trenard Davis and Carmoni Green), three defensive linemen (Kenyon Jackson, Tito Odenigbo and Sean Adesanya) and four defensive backs (Tony Adams, Chris James, Dawson DeGroot and Evan Jackson).

Another wideout, Malik Turner, was injured during the Purdue game and did not finish. Even starting quarterback Cam Thomas was banged up and was sent to the locker room late in the fourth quarter. He is expected to play Saturday.

Smith said he hopes to get some players back this week. Kenyon Jackson, Odenigbo and Watson are three who have a chance to return.

“We have a lot of injuries right now,” Smith acknowledged. “We didn’t have this many last year but that’s how it goes. You’ll find out a lot about your football team.”

No more shuffle: Illinois’ quarterback shuffle looks to be a thing of the past.

Both Smith and McGee strongly implied that Thomas, a true freshman, will run the offense for the final three games.

Thomas and Jeff George Jr. had been sharing playing time until Saturday at Purdue, when Thomas got nearly all of the plays until being shaken up late. When asked under what circumstance George Jr. would be getting action going forward, McGee only mentioned in the event of an injury to Thomas.

Thomas completed 10 of 20 passes for 159 yards Saturday and did not throw an interception.

 Contact Mark Tupper via Twitter: @MarkTupper

Outbrain