If there’s a modern campus version of the Old West’s gunslinger or World War II’s fighter pilot, look to football’s running back.
Gymnasts in today’s Big Ten meet will display more dexterity. Golfers are more skillfully repetitive. Swimmers are better conditioned. But other competitors aren’t required to have the combination of speed, toughness and escapability needed to confront angry 250-pounders dedicated to their demise.
When Rashard Mendenhall and Mikel Leshoure were doing their thing, there was nothing more scintillating in an Illini jersey.
Today’s Illini warriors — oft overlooked — are 220-pound Texan Donovonn Young, a product of 2010’s bowl trip to Houston, redshirt sophomore Josh Ferguson of Joliet Catholic and sophomore Dami Ayoola from Fort Lauderdale. They’ll be on display at today’s open practice, which is part of the IFCA coaches clinic.
New UI offensive coordinator Bill Cubit awakened listeners to the possibilities when he referred to Ferguson: “He gives us something different in space. I’ve never coached a guy who can make tacklers miss like he can.”
Leading question: With Illinois rushing for just 12 touchdowns in the 2-10 season of 2012, will blocking be sufficiently improved to turn Young, Ferguson and Ayoola loose in the new system?
“This fits me,” said Young, leading rusher last season with 571 yards. “From the standpoint of passing, Coach Cubit’s offense is wide receiver friendly, although we have screens and swings for the backs. But for me, it feels good to stand 7 yards behind the quarterback and see the field. He wants one-cut backs to get down the field. We’re ready to carry the load. I like Coach Cubit.”
Room to improve
“Obviously, 12 rushing TDs is not enough,” backfield coach Tim Salem said. “This game is played with helmets and shoulder pads, and at some point you must be able to run the football. We are focusing on a handful of two-back, north-south runs ... chipping away and trying to find an attitude.
“We want to lower our pads and quit looking for the 70-yard run. Just give us a consistent 4. Anything more than that is great. Last time I checked — we’re trying to make it like Sesame Street — 3 x 4 equals 12, which is a first down. And when you become consistent with 4-yard runs, they become 8-yard runs.”
In terms of goals, Salem has his points of emphasis.
“We want to eliminate turnovers, drive-ending penalties, sacks and missed assignments. If we avoid negative situations and do the small things, the big things take care of themselves,” he said.
A critical aspect is the offensive line, which was scrambling early last season with multiple position shifts. It now appears set with two huge veterans, Alex Hill and Corey Lewis, locked in at center and right tackle. Backup right tackle Scott McDowell was on crutches (ankle) this week but will return to full activity this summer.
“We want each lineman to learn a position and build a foundation at that spot,” Salem said. “We want each one to find a home.”
It’s fun to run
Back to the ball carriers. It’s been noticeable, with so much emphasis on quarterback, that Illini running backs have slipped under the radar since Centennial’s Leshoure turned pro after his 1,697-yard season of 2010. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase led the ground attack with 624 net yards in 2011, and Young spearheaded a weak offense in 2012.
Passing still may provide Illinois with its best chance against superior forces, and Cubit is concentrating on developing receivers for a quick-strike aerial game. He called recent steps by senior-to-be Ryan Lankford, JC transfer Martize Barr and sophomore Justin Hardee encouraging. But face it: If there isn’t overland improvement, don’t look for the Illini to crawl out of the Big Ten cellar.
“Obviously, our backs are a year older and more experienced in games,” Salem said. “They’ve done a nice job running the ball this spring, and we’re stressing things like carrying out fakes and pass blocking.”
Young stacks up as the workhorse. His size, attitude and running style fit the mold of a Big Ten back.
Ferguson is the X-factor. He sat out as a freshman and failed to score a touchdown last year despite more than 100 opportunities (29 receptions, 75 rushes).
“Josh is quick and elusive, and one of our better playmakers,” Salem said. “He had to fight through hip and ankle injuries last season, and he’s looking forward to scoring that first touchdown. He now weighs 195 pounds, and that’s important because the thin and frail find it hard to survive in this game. You need shoulder girth.
“Selfishly, I’d say our ball carriers are a team strength because we have three guys who have all played. We don’t have three like that at every position.”
Like a center in basketball, they rely on others to help them excel. This needs to happen for the 2013 Illini to break the tailspin of 14 straight Big Ten losses.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.
For our eyes only
Tim Beckman doesn’t open up practice much. But twice in the next eight days, fans of Illinois football can get a closer look at his second team:
Beckman will conduct an open scrimmage for fans and coaches attending the IFCA clinic at Memorial Stadium. The Illini will take the field at 5:30 p.m.
The Illini spring football game will be held under the lights at Memorial Stadium at 8 p.m. next Friday, April 12. Former players are invited to a barbecue at 5:30 before the game and to a golf outing at noon April 13.