The Southern hospitality thing is one of the things I feel I carried up here. People just used to say, “Why are you so nice? Why do you do that?”
Running back Donovonn Young is one of the most outgoing Illinois football players. And he’s not the only Texas native on the roster this year. Freshman wide receiver Marchie Murdock has doubled the number of Texans Young has had as teammates his first two seasons. But he knows he has lofty expectations to live up to with his jersey number (5) and the position he plays (running back). Young sat down with beat writer MATT DANIELS earlier this week to talk about his career so far at Illinois, how he first heard of Mikel Leshoure and the weather in Champaign-Urbana.
Why’d you decide on No. 5?
I think it’s obvious. It was a recruiting strategy, first of all. I don’t know if the coaches actually felt if I was special enough yet to wear No. 5, but they were adamant about me wearing No. 5 to carry on the running back tradition. Hopefully I can do that. I don’t want to be the first No. 5 not to do it.
How much did you know about Rashard Mendenhall and Mikel Leshoure before you arrived at Illinois?
I knew about Rashard. Didn’t know much about Mikel, but the week that I started getting recruited by Illinois was the Northwestern game (in 2010), and that was when Mikel had 330 yards. I was like, “Man, who is this dude?” I had never heard of him. I thought it was cool that somebody thought of me that highly to not necessarily be like one of those guys but to carry on that tradition.
What was it like having Illinois get involved so late in the recruiting process?
I was just thankful. I felt like it was a blessing that I ended up here. A lot of times in Texas, guys get lost in the shuffle, running backs especially. I’m glad that I ended up here. I’m glad that the first coaching staff took a chance on me and gave me my shot.
Was it hard adjusting to the winters in East Central Illinois?
They told me my first year it wasn’t that bad, so I was like, “All right. That’s cool.” Then last year, it was better than the year before, so I’m not too dismayed by the weather here.
What’s different about Illinois compared to Texas?
In Texas, they do a lot of things different. I get made fun of a lot just because I talk different, and I have different mannerisms. I feel like people weren’t used to that. People have their way of doing things up here, and they made fun of me every once in a while. The Southern hospitality thing is one of the things I feel I carried up here. People just used to say, “Why are you so nice? Why do you do that?”
How frustrating was last year?
It was tough. Every week we felt we had a chance. You never want to go out and just think, “We don’t have a shot.” After the second half of almost every game, it was almost a defeated mentality just around. I feel like we did more talking than anything. Somebody had to do something, so I guess they thought talking would do the job and get us motivated, but it wasn’t necessarily the talking that helped. I feel like that year was needed for us to be as good as we’re going to be this year. Me and Josh (Ferguson) talk about this a lot. We went through that tough year, and football wasn’t the most important thing last year. In the grand scheme of things, we realized that, no matter what, all we have is each other. Being able to rely on the man next to you when you’re going through your hard times and gaining a bond, last year helped us come together. I’m not happy that last year happened, but I feel like everything happens for a reason. Last year was needed to get to where we’re going to be this year.
You’ve seen Illinois start 6-0 during your freshman year to enduring a 14-game Big Ten losing streak. How hard is that?
I’m glad I’ve went through it. My freshman year, I didn’t know what it was like to lose until we started losing those games at the end. We went 6-0, so we thought we’d come back last year and do the same thing. I didn’t know what it was like to be at the bottom. You can’t necessarily enjoy or appreciate the good times if you don’t have bad times. That’s something I live my life by.
What has Bill Cubit brought to the offense?
I think it’s a trust thing. A lot of guys on this offense trust Coach Cubit, no matter if they’re fourth-string and Coach Cubit is chewing their butt out. That goes along with his experience, his demeanor and his integrity. You always want to play for somebody you trust. You can play for a guy like Coach Cubit because he’ll put his neck on the line for us, and we’ll do the same for him.
Your dad, Cartrell, makes quite the road trip to come to your games. It’s about a 15-hour trip from Houston to Champaign. What’s that mean to you?
Sometimes I don’t know how they make it. He’ll call me sometimes and be like, “We’re outside. I need a key.” I’m like, “How’d you get here?” They drive or fly. You just never know with them. My dad and my stepmom might be the most dedicated Illinois fans right now since their son is playing. They make it happen every weekend. My dad during my freshman year, he’d drive up here, watch the game and then leave. I made the trip one time, and I said, “Man, I’m never doing that again.” I’m just happy I’ve got people that love me like that. My dad’s a truck driver and might not have the fanciest job, might struggle from paycheck to paycheck, but at the end of the day, when I grow up, I want to be like my dad. He’s somebody that’s passionate, that’s loving and caring, and I want to be how my dad is to me to my son.
What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?
I don’t know if people can tell from the sidelines — they might be able to — but I like to enjoy the moment. You might see me during games where I’m always dancing and always laughing. I’m trying to have a good time. At the end of the day, this is football, but if I don’t have fun doing it, what was it worth? I want to have fun doing what I do. I feel that’s how I am every game, every practice. I just like to enjoy my time. I was thinking about it the other day, we don’t understand sometimes how important Illini football is to people around here. Just because we’re so secluded from the rest of Champaign and alumni, but if we really knew how many people out there are counting on us, it would bring a different perspective on things. We don’t like to think about the pressure. We just like to go have fun, and I try to enjoy my time here.
What’s one NFL running back you enjoy watching?
I’m going to go with the hometown guy, Arian Foster. Arian Foster is the man. I worked out with him when I went back home. Some people my dad knows know Arian Foster’s brother, who trains him. I trained with him, and I’m just astonished. Arian Foster isn’t the biggest, isn’t the most built-up, but he is in shape. I remember we were doing sprints, and he was doing 80-yard sprints, and the dude had a ball in his hand. His brother told me not to have a ball in my hand, and he beat me by about 5 yards. I was like, “You are the real deal.”
Who’s your dream date?
I really don’t have one. This is what I should do. I should get a girl I go to school with and shout her out, but I don’t have anybody. I don’t like celebrities like that because I want something that’s attainable. I would never get Beyonce.
Five touchdowns against Southern Illinois or a night on the town with your to-be-determined dream date?
Five touchdowns because if I score five touchdowns, my eventual dream date is going to find me.