Bob Asmussen: Ferguson to carry load

Bob Asmussen: Ferguson to carry load

The email came from SMU earlier in the week, asking me to continue as part of the Doak Walker National Selection Committee.

Easy answer: Yes.

Like the Heisman, Lombardi and other awards, it is an honor to be among those casting votes that count.

This year, there might even be an Illinois player on my ballot.

That has been rare during almost two decades on the Illinois beat. Rashard Mendenhall deserved consideration in 2007. And Mikel Leshoure put together a trophy-worthy season in 2010.

But Illinois has not been Wisconsin-like or Ohio State-ish in producing big-time backs.

Josh Ferguson hopes to change that. Not that he will ever tell you.

The former Joliet Catholic star is quiet off the field, while getting louder on it.

At 5-foot-10, 195 pounds (soaking wet), Ferguson doesn’t have the look of your traditional star back. He gets by with other tools: speed, agility and hands.

Ferguson not only ran for 779 yards last season but he also led the team with 50 catches for another 535 yards.

Being a dual-threat running back makes Ferguson unique among this year’s top Doak Walker candidates.

And that could separate him from the other candidates in the eyes of the voters.

Frankly, the lack of internal competition helps Ferguson, too.

While Donovonn Young is a capable backup, he isn’t a threat to take valuable snaps away from Ferguson. Thin at the position, Illinois will need to keep Ferguson on the field more than any other player on the team. The team will look to him at all spots. He will be asked to gain the tough yards near the end zone and to provide big gains as the Bill Cubit offense moves down the field.

Quarterbacks and coordinators are creatures of habit. Once they find that Ferguson is reliable at all points on the field, and they will, his number will be called early and often.

The key for the Illini is to not overuse Ferguson. Give him a rest after a long reception. Tell him to sit a minute or two after a series of runs. Keeping him fresh might mean the difference between a bowl season and a coaching search.

The Illini came close to getting some backfield help for Ferguson. But former high school teammate Ty Isaac chose Michigan over Illinois after leaving Southern Cal.

Isaac will sit out the season in Ann Arbor. Illinois would have been better with Isaac. If Ferguson ends up making a run at the Doak Walker, he will have his ex-teammate to thank for it. Feature backs with awards.

The votes won’t be cast until late in the season. And Ferguson controls whether or not his name appears. Stay tuned.

Bob Asmussen writes three columns a week for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at

Walker worthy
If Josh Ferguson produces the way the Illinois coaches hope, he could be in the race for the Doak Walker Award, which goes to the nation’s top running back. An early look at the top candidates:

Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska      Latest in a long line of Huskers stars, he ran for 1,690 yards last season

Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin  With James White gone, his TDs  (12 last season) figure to climb

Duke Johnson, Miami   Just a hunch he replaces departed   Andre Williams as ACC’s top runner

Todd Gurley, Georgia   Plenty of talent, the big question is whether he can stay healthy

T.J. Yeldon,  Alabama  A new QB means he will handle more of the offensive load

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PortlandIllini wrote on June 19, 2014 at 9:06 am


Most college football fans can recognize that award-winning running backs come from teams with outstanding offensive lines.   Having agile  6-4 330lb linemen opening holes for you  will make every college running back look better.    Illini RBs and QBs will get more national attention when they aren't running for their lives in the backfield.