CHAMPAIGN — Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young are taking turns this season.
Carrying the football. Gaining yards. Shedding tackles.
And both running backs are trying to earn this title among Illinois football players: Most Fashionable.
“Him and Donovonn probably have dress-offs, I’m sure,” Illinois wide receiver Steve Hull said. “They dress pretty snazzy.”
Young claims he is the best dressed on the team. He puts Ferguson at a close second.
“I’m not saying I was checking him out, but he’s got a good body, and he likes to wear tight clothes,” Young said with a laugh. “It’s very stylish. It’s almost like our running styles. He does stuff that I can’t do with fashion. I cannot wear tight pants because it’s just not a good look for me. He pulls it off.”
Ferguson doesn’t dispute Young might win a best-dressed contest. But Ferguson would like to clarify his wardrobe.
“Donovonn is more into it,” Ferguson said. “He’s all about that. I don’t wear baggy clothes, but I don’t wear skinny jeans or anything like that.”
Ferguson’s shoe collection doesn’t come close to matching what former Illinois men’s basketball player D.J. Richardson has accumulated throughout the years. But with the 10 pairs or so Ferguson has, he usually tries to match with what he’s wearing, a trait not all college football players have.
“He has some swagger with his attire each and every day,” Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. “Always button-down shirts. It’s all out of my style range and price range, but it’s something he enjoys for sure.”
Swagger on the field is clear to see this season in Ferguson’s game. It appears in his elusive ability to pick up positive yards. On a multitude of moves. Moves he honed watching videotapes his father, Collin, showed him. Highlights from the likes of Walter Payton, Terry Metcalf, Eric Metcalf and Barry Sanders. The high-stepping ability he displayed during a 16-yard touchdown catch against Miami (Ohio) three weeks ago in Memorial Stadium prompted Ted Karras to dust off Payton’s nickname and bestow it upon Ferguson.
“I called him Sweetness,” the Illinois right guard said. “I had never seen that before in person, so I thought it was awesome.”
Swagger off the field isn’t clear to see in Ferguson.
Reserved. Soft-spoken. Shy. Those are all adjectives used to describe the redshirt sophomore who is leading the nation in receiving yards by a running back (344) and is leading Illinois in rushing yards (310) entering tonight’s game against Wisconsin.
“Judging from what people tell me, they think I’m a quiet dude and more of a listener,” Ferguson said. “A guy who thinks before they speak. I pretty much am. That’s probably their first impression.”
Thoughtful is the best way to describe him, according to his father.
“There are qualities that he has as a person that I wish I had,” Collin Ferguson said. “He spends a lot of time in prayer and devotion. His faith is very important to him.”
Ferguson grew up with church playing a prominent part in his life. Collin Ferguson is a pastor at the Words to Live By Christian Center in Oak Brook. It’s where the younger Ferguson said his attention to detail involving his clothes might have come about, seeing his father in suits all the time from an early age.
“It’s my everything,” Josh Ferguson said of his faith. “Through good and bad times, it’s been there. It’s a huge part of my life.”
His teammates have seen both sides of his personality during his first three years on the Illinois campus.
The jokes. The banter. The serious discussions. The silence.
“He’s a guy that can be one of the funniest guys in the room and at times one of the deepest guys in the room,” Scheelhaase said. “I’ve had some great conversations with him just since I’ve been here. It’s been cool to see his maturation as he’s come into his own on the field.”
Wisconsin will have to concern themselves with Ferguson tonight in Champaign. The Badgers almost didn’t have to. They were interested in his skills when Ferguson was at Joliet Catholic but wanted him to play defensive back.
“He wasn’t happy about that,” Collin Ferguson said.
Happy could describe how Illinois coach Tim Beckman and offensive coordinator Bill Cubit have felt seeing Ferguson emerge this season. A hamstring injury caused Ferguson to miss the final 10 games of the 2011 season and various ailments limited him last year.
“When I first got here, Josh was still working out down in the weight room because he wasn’t practicing,” Beckman said. “I didn’t get to see much film on Josh Ferguson at all. The first time I got to see Josh Ferguson was during spring football (in 2012), and I knew right away that he’s got great vision. He’s got great bursts of speed in the open field. He was young, but you knew he had some things you could definitely utilize.”
Cubit is doing so this year. So far, Ferguson’s health hasn’t made its way into the conversation. Just his ability to make plays.
“He got a lot more carries and the load was a lot heavier than it’s been in the past, which is kind of what we thought was going to happen going into Big Ten play because he is a gamebreaker,” Cubit said. “He’s just going to have to get used to it. His body is going to have to get used to it because he hasn’t done it for almost two years. We’ve got to keep him healthy.”
Ferguson took an active interest in football from an early age, but he had to prod his mother, Danielle, to let him play. He started in elementary school playing flag football and it progressed from there. In between his freshman and sophomore years of high school at one of the many football camps Ferguson attended, camp instructors Blair Thomas and Lorenzo Wright, two former Big Ten and NFL running backs, approached the family and told them Josh had the talent to play Division I football. The talent is now projected to anyone who has watched Ferguson this season.
“Josh Ferguson has exploded,” Illinois defensive tackle Austin Teitsma said. “He’s been so fun to watch, and I’m so happy for him. I’ve always seen him as a fantastic athlete. I just didn’t know when it was going to happen. It’s happening, so keep going Josh.”
Josh Ferguson fits the definition of all-purpose back, leading Illinois in both rushing (310) and receiving yards (344). Illinois wide receivers coach Mike Bellamy (UI Class of ‘90) couldn’t think of a former Illini that has Ferguson’s skill set. Veteran college football writer BOB ASMUSSEN gives it a try:
1. Rocky Harvey — Just ask ex-Michigan coach Lloyd Carr if “Rausell” could catch the ball (see 1999 game film).
2. E.B. Halsey — Diminutive New Jerseyan (Loren Tate term) had a knack for finding open spots on the field.
3. Keith Jones — Three-year rushing leader in the late ’80s once caught 12 passes against Michigan State.