Loren Tate: Illini proceed with caution
RANTOUL — Football coaches are renowned drivers — pushing athletes to the limit — but there is also a point of diminishing returns.
And for the UI’s Tim Beckman, it’s more important to reach Aug. 30 with the best players healthy than to leave them weary and bruised from extensive head-banging.
“As I learned years ago, it’s critical to have our ‘A’ players fresh and ready for the games,” he said.
“As an example, we know who those ‘A’ players are at running back. We have to make sure Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young are ready to play a full season. We’ll cut back on reps because they’ve shown us what they can do.
“We need to be smart and see that they’re prepared. DY had a minor concussion last week, so we held him out as a precautionary measure. We know what he can do.”
This conservatism will carry into game strategy as Beckman and coordinator Bill Cubit are determined to have their No. 1 breakaway threat, Ferguson, available when opposing defenses tire in the fourth quarter. Ferguson has had injuries in the past, a hamstring strain earning him a medical redshirt in 2011 after he sat out 10 games, and he missed two games in 2012. Last year, Ferguson finished second among FBS schools in receiving yards for a running back (44.6 per game), catching 50 balls. He rushed for 779 yards and led the team with 11 TDs.
In the finale against Northwestern, Ferguson broke a 55-yard run to put Illinois ahead 27-23 in the third quarter but was unavailable in the fourth as the Wildcats rallied to win 37-34.
The coaches will try to suppress a natural desire to overuse the UI’s best open-field threat. He isn’t, after all, the 17-year-old who starred as a 169-pounder for Joliet Catholic in 2010. He’s 21 now and a rock-solid 200 pounds. But Illini coaches intend to err on the side of caution, letting Young and Devin Church share time in order to keep Ferguson fresh for the big moments.
Alex Golesh, who has charge of running backs this season, discussed a strategy that coincides with Beckman and Cubit:
“Behind Josh, we are working right now to develop solid backups, and last year we didn’t feel like we did,” Golesh said. “We probably used Ferg too much at times. I told Donovonn that he’s the most important piece to our offensive puzzle because, if he can take a lot off Josh during a game, and if Devin Church can keep coming on, it’ll make our entire offense better.”
Young, a 220-pound Texan, showed promise with 571 yards rushing and 38 receptions as a sophomore, but he dipped to 376 and 12 as a junior. Unhappy, he seriously considered transferring.
“Donovonn had to do a lot of soul searching — who am I as a person, who am I as a player? — and I think he has become a solid senior leader,” Golesh said. “He just needs to hit it north and south, and run people over at the end. He wasn’t the physical presence last year that he was as a sophomore.”
— Ed Bond (@EdIllini) August 12, 2014
And so it is with Jon Davis, senior tight end. Knee problems have limited the Louisville product in recent years.
”Davis has shown this team what he can do,” Beckman said. “He has had injuries in the past, but he is another ‘A’ player, so we have to make sure he is ready for the games.”
Davis, who also has fullback skills, is part of a 1-2 punch at tight end with 6-foot-6 senior Matt LaCosse, a more prolific deep threat. LaCosse caught 20 passes for 237 yards and three TDs last season, and he figures prominently in UI plans as Cubit reshapes the receiver corps.
Up front, a different approach: Beckman will oversee heated competition this week in hopes of resolving whether senior Michael Heitz plays right tackle or left guard.
Heitz has started 31 games, mostly at guard after a rookie season at tackle. Asked his preference, he said: “I’ll play wherever they need me. It doesn’t matter.”
“We have four starters back, and we’d rather have Heitz at guard,” Beckman said. “But that means Austin Schmidt, Christian DiLauro or Patrick Flavin will have to step up at tackle. We moved Flavin from left tackle to the right side and let him work with the starters Saturday.”
A new set of eyes — line coach Tom Brattan — may see something in a stronger, more mature Flavin that previous coaches didn’t.
“Any time you have a new coach, it’s a clean slate for everyone,” Brattan said. “I’m just looking for the five best, and there’s nothing etched in stone at this point. Flavin has shown promise. I like his long arms and size (6-7 and 300). We’ll know more after a couple of scrimmages.
“Cohesiveness is important up front. We’d like to have the five starters set when we leave Rantoul.”
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.