Seniority won't earn Ford the job. The offensive coordinator is already talking big things about the freshmen, although it comes with the warning about not expecting too much too early.
Illinois freshman running back Donovonn Young isn't just another freshman running back, if the early indications are accurate. Overlooked by recruiters when he broke his foot in the season opener of his junior year at Katy, Texas, Young found himself at the right place and the right time when the Illini offered him more than a scholarship. They said he could have No. 5, the same jersey number worn by Rashard Mendenhall and Mikel Leshoure before they left for the NFL. "With them offering me the No. 5, I knew they thought I could be something special,'' Young said during the Illinois media day Sunday at Memorial Stadium. "I wanted to come here. They believed in me more than I believed in myself. I wanted to be around people who believed in me.'' Leshoure broke Mendenhall's single-season school rushing record with 1,697 yards last season. For a team that's led the Big Ten in rushing in three of the last five years, it's a priority to find a running back. Senior Jason Ford returned, but he's been unable to earn the coaches' trust, so the buzz around Illini football following three days of split squad practices highlighted Young and Josh Ferguson, the speedy Joliet Catholic graduate. When Camp Rantoul begins Monday, the incumbent Ford has to fight for playing time. He doesn't get this job because of seniority. Senior Troy Pollard, sophomore Bug Golden and redshirt freshman Ean Days also compete for carries. While playing behind Leshoure, Ford often battles with issues with weight, injury and the coach's doghouse. Ford arrived in camp about seven pounds over the preferred weight of 233 pounds. That's not a good sign, even if coach Ron Zook said Ford had less body fat than previous years. Ford also ticked off the coaches last season by whining about playing time on Twitter, then he was arrested for a driving on a suspended license in the spring. The bruising 6-foot, 240-pounder also battles with nagging ankle injuries, since tacklers have learned to dive at the ankles and shins of the human bowling ball. Ford wanted to show the coaches "that I can keep fighting through nagging injuries, keep running hard and don't change my running style because of the small things,'' he said. Ford was held from the spring scrimmages by Zook because of an ankle injury, Ford said, even though offensive coordinator Paul Petrino wanted him on the field. Like everyone else, Ford still has to prove himself. "Every single guy needs to prove that he's ready,'' Petrino said. "I need to see (Ford) run downhill, hard, violent, and then get up and do it again. And then get up and do it again. And then get up and do it again. He has the ability to do that over and over and do it consistently, then he's got to wake up the next morning and want to carry the ball 30 times that day.'' Can he put up the same numbers as Leshoure? "Possibly,'' Petrino said. "Those two freshmen are awfully good. He might not get as many touches. There's a whole bunch of talent.'' Young is a 6-foot, 218-pounder who already made a different impression on Zook than Ford. "(On Saturday), I was pretty tired before coach Zook came up to me in practice and said, 'I'm glad to see you're human.' The past couple days, I've been gong so hard, he'd never seen anything like this,'' Young said. "It's pretty nice to see that people are noticing how hard I've worked.'' Those recruiters who passed on Young are now motivating him. "People slept on me,'' he said. "Now it's my time to shine. Hopefully, I get a chance to do that.'' Ferguson had interest from other Big Ten schools, although it came with an asterisk. Some of them wanted him to play in the slot instead of running back. Petrino served as the lead recruiter on Ferguson, and the 5-10, 185-pounder already has a niche in the offense, such as outside zone plays, pitches and anything that needs some speed. "He can cut on a dime,'' Petrino said. "He's got a great, low center of gravity. Now doubt, I like to see him catching the pitch on optons, those stretch routes and lot of things Mikel did last year, but Josh has an extra gear. He can do a lot more than that. He's a lot more than a running back.'' Ferguson gained 10 pounds of muscle since hitting campus in June, because he's always faced the critics who said he's too small. "Since the eighth grade when kids started getting bigger, that's when I had to improve my speed, cutting abilty and vision. Essentially, that's when my game lifted off.'' But those guys are big across the line. "That's when you use these bad boys,'' he said, slapping his legs. By the numbers A look at the top candidates for Illini running back Jason Ford: After setting St. Louis metro record with 6,415 yards at Belleville Althoff, he rushed for 1,362 yards in his first three seasons. Donovonn Young: As a Katy (Texas) senior, he gained 2,332 yards and scored 36 touchdowns. Josh Ferguson: He rushed for 1,868 yards and scored 28 touchdowns for Joliet Catholic last season.