Ever since he was 8 and making his football debut, Josh Ferguson has been questioned because of his size.
"I've used that as a chip on my shoulder," he said Saturday after being named the Illini's most improved offensive player. Now at 185 pounds and promising to reach 190 by August, the Joliet Catholic speedster was the second player drafted by his senior teammates for the spring game, and he responded with 150 yards in 20 carries as the Blues defeated Nathan Scheelhaase and the Orange 13-12.
This dispelled concerns that Ferguson's hamstring tear, which caused him to redshirt as a freshman last fall, would be a continuing problem. He darted for 20 yards on his first carry, ran for 18 and 12 in his team's second series, and exploded from the 2-yard line for 68 yards before swift cornerback Justin Green hauled him down.
"With his speed, the sky is the limit for Josh," Scheelhaase said. "We need Josh and Donovonn Young to have a big season for us. They can't think they're young any more. And Josh can catch the ball out of the backfield. I remember when he worked out as receiver in our one-day camp here. He is a threat in space."
Coach Tim Beckman appeared somewhat relieved about a key position that wasn't as productive last season as it had been.
"Ferguson has really stepped it up," Beckman said. "You saw today what we've been seeing. He has a great burst."
Ferguson's concern Saturday was "that I didn't score ... but I was otherwise happy. It is a relief to be playing and not rehabbing. I was hesitant at first."
Last season on the Thursday before the Western Michigan game, he recalls feeling some tightness in his left leg and then, when he slipped on a wet surface, he incurred two tears in his left hamstring.
He appears to be the most positive development of Beckman's first spring.
Lining things up
The difficult question facing Beckman now is how to align his offensive linemen.
"We will study it and play the best five," he repeated Saturday.
That could mean either center Graham Pocic or guard Hugh Thornton, both seniors, moving outside. The glaring weakness of Saturday's scrimmage was erratic passing — Beckman called it "sloppy" — in part because the tackles couldn't stymie the pass rush of quick defensive ends. The talented Michael Buchanan and running mates Justin Staples and Darrius Caldwell had eight QB sacks and were in the backfield throughout the cloudy afternoon. Imagine what it would have been if the nation's sacks leader, Whitney Mercilus, hadn't turned pro.
Scheelhaase was a disappointing 11 of 26 for 65 yards, Reilly O'Toole 19 of 31 for 159 yards, and the versatile Miles Osei an impressive 8 of 12 for 115 yards.
Sacks don't normally come through the interior line but rather from the perimeter, where big tackles are on an island facing outside rushers with quicker feet.
Buchanan finished with 12 tackles for the losing Orange, two more than Blue linebacker Jonathan Brown.
"I feel it is my time," said Buchanan, a senior. "I just read the tackle's outside leg and get off as fast as I can. The name of my position is different (formerly "bandit, it is now "leo") but it's pretty much the same. Maybe I drop into coverage a little more."
Buchanan got in so fast it looked like he was guessing the signal count. Beckman's offense will get better when Young is fully healthy, when receiver Darius Millines returns and when Scheelhaase isn't held back. But line blocking limited last year's team, and Beckman must find answers to prevent this from happening again.
The departure of basketball aide Jerrance Howard brings to $7.5 million the amount required for ongoing pay to four former coaches at the UI. Bruce Weber's contract calls for $3.9 million over the next three years, and Howard's requires more than $400,000 over the next two years.
"That amount ($7.5 million) will be paid over a three-year period, so it averages out at $2.5 million per year," athletic director Mike Thomas said, "and that is doable with a budget that is approaching $80 million."
Thomas has taken steps in contractual negotiations with new coaches to reduce the department's exposure. The past contracts, some extended even as head coaches appeared vulnerable, were too one-sided in favor of them.
"The contracts with new coaches are significantly different," Thomas said. "The buyouts, whether they leave on their own or are removed, will henceforth be tied to the base salary, and the guaranteed compensation will be offset when departing coaches take positions elsewhere."
For example, of John Groce's $1.4 million salary, only $400,000 is base. So the buyout, whether he elects to leave or is pushed, stems from that number, not the $1.4 million.
What happened to the UI women's basketball banquet?
It slipped through the cracks. In the past several months, Thomas has been on the run much of the time, and new coach Matt Bollant wasn't aware that it had been dropped.
"What we do for the men, we should also do for the women," Thomas said. "The Kiwanis Club sent me an invitation for the men's banquet many weeks ago, but nothing came across my desk relative to the women.
"I'm going to look into it. The senior women should be honored."
Actually, the women squad members decided among themselves not to hold an official banquet but honored the seniors with their private dinner.
Thomas and Groce elected not to attend the men's banquet after Weber agreed to return for the event. Thomas plans to attend gymnastics and tennis banquets later this month.
In hindsight ...
Back when names were being thrown out regarding Weber's possible successor, and Chicago's Dave Kaplan was pointing to Kansas State's Frank Martin, a quick warning came through my telephone.
"Two of your favorites won't be considered" was the message. "They won't pass muster on the background checks by Thomas. Too much smoke (around Martin and Scott Drew)."
Sure enough, it soon became known that Drew's Baylor program was under NCAA investigation. Drew and the program have received sanctions, and he won't be on the bench for the first two Big 12 games next season. And Martin, who has not been charged with anything, acknowledged that he gave an undisclosed amount of money to some of his former high school players while they were in college.
This may not be considered an infraction but, fairly or not, red flags have been flying around Martin even as he left Kansas State for an extra half-million dollars at South Carolina.
It appears that my informant, who is seldom wrong, once again had good information.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.