Young back in right mind-set
CHAMPAIGN — Humbled is a good way to describe what Donovonn Young felt last fall.
Probably frustrated, too. Discouraged. Ticked off. Disappointed.
The running back failed to generate the type of season he envisioned for himself in 2013. Lost his starting job. Rushed for the fewest yards (376) he’s accumulated in three seasons with an Illinois uniform on. Contemplated transferring.
“It was a thought in my mind, no doubt, but I didn’t want to leave,” Young said. “I didn’t get what I wanted last year. Life doesn’t go your way all the time. It was hard, but I didn’t want to leave these guys.”
He didn’t, despite media reports in early December implying a transfer was already a done deal. Aside from working on his agility and strength this spring, Young also has attempted to become more of a reader. Of defenses. And books.
Young recently read “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” by Steven Covey. He is planning to read “Think and Grow Rich,” by Napoleon Hill. Both are classic self-improvement books.
“I’m just working on me,” Young said. “I feel if I can work on me, it’ll help the team as far as me being a leader and coming out here every day and helping everybody else while I’m helping myself.”
Young acknowledged wearing the No. 5 jersey, which the top two Illinois single-season rushers in Mikel Leshoure and Rashard Mendenhall both wore, brings a bit of added pressure. Along with, some might argue, unfulfilled expectations as far as Young’s career is concerned.
“It was hard trying to figure out what they wanted from me and what I had in mind (last year),” Young said. “Everything was a big mixup. People were coming at me telling me I wasn’t worth anything. It was hard for me, but it was a learning experience for me, to say the least. I’m glad that I experienced that now and not later on down the road. Now I know how to handle it.”
Josh Ferguson will get the first chance to handle carries from whatever quarterback Illinois lines up under center. He’s earned the right after utilizing his versatility running the ball and catching passes out of the backfield with the success he had last season.
“It’s been great,” Ferguson said about spring ball. “It’s not as stressful having to learn a whole new playbook, so that’s been a good thing for us. Right now we’re just trying to get down our steps and our techniques.”
Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit apparently hasn’t given up on Young. Or the possibility of having Ferguson and Young form a solid running back combination teams will have to prepare for.
“We’ve got to get DY going,” Cubit said. “We’ve just got to get his confidence level up. Sometimes when you lose a position, you think that you’ve moved down. He’s a valuable part of this football team.”
Cubit and Young talked after the season ended. It may not have involved exactly effusive praise of Young’s 2013 season. But Cubit isn’t one to necessarily sugarcoat what some may consider sensitive talking points.
“Sometimes we camouflage things,” Cubit said. “We want to make it all nice and give an award to every kid out there. That was never my style, I guess. I try to let them know what he needs to get done, and he’s accepted it.”
Young feels better about his role now.
“First of all, I see myself as a team player,” Young said. “Whatever the team needs me to do, I’m going to do it. As far as Coach Cubit, what he wants me to do is get 4 or 5 yards to just keep the pile moving.”
Finding out exactly who Young is, on and off the football field, has proved challenging at times during his three seasons in Champaign-Urbana. The 21-year-old thinks he’s getting closer, though.
“I saw Josh doing well and it was like, ‘Damn, maybe I should be doing what Josh is doing,’ ” Young said. “I don’t need to make big plays. I don’t need to be what Josh is. I just need to be me.”
When Young’s playing time diminished last season, it
was easy to tell he wasn’t exactly happy by his body language and melancholy attitude. Fast-forward a few months and Young’s demeanor is noticeably different. In a good way.
“It’s been a real test of character,” he said. “I found myself trying to figure out who I really am without football. That aspect of who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do as far as an individual in this program was kind of taken away from me because of my play. Who am I other than just this football player? I’ve just been trying to figure out who I am and trying to find the principles that I will live my life by so that in the future, when my character is tested, I know how to respond.”
Just keep running, running
Donovonn Young is the active rushing leader at Illinois. The senior has racked up 1,448 yards in three seasons. Josh Ferguson isn’t far behind with 1,143. Each would need a career-best season in 2014 to crack the program’s top 10 list. Here’s who they’re chasing:
Rank Player Total rushing yards
1 Robert Holcombe 4,105
2 Antoineo Harris 2,985
3 Thomas Rooks 2,887
4 Jim Grabowski 2,878
5 Rocky Harvey 2,711
T-6 Mikel Leshoure 2,557
T-6 Juice Williams 2,557
8 Pierre Thomas 2,545
9 Rashard Mendenhall 2,539
10 Howard Griffith 2,485