You'll notice there's a theme to our positional previews this year. Just about any group of Illini players I break down were disappointing in 2012. Which tends to happen when you go 2-10 and end the season on a nine-game losing streak.
However, while the running backs may not have been great last season, I tend to have a bit more hope for this group than I do the others on this offense. And there's a reason for it.
That reason is named Donovonn Young.
It starts from the fact that when I look at all the players on this Illinois offense Young is the only one I look at and think "this kid has a chance to play in the NFL." Now, I'm not saying he will, I'm saying that the talent and potential are there, and thankfully for Young, so is the offensive system for him in 2012.
While the Illini were a running team the last few years, the way they went about using the running game was not suited to Young's strengths. Too often he was asked to begin his runs heading east and west rather than north and south, and Young is the type of back who should be heading forward at all times.
He isn't built to try and outrun a defender to the edge as much as he's built to find a hole, hit it and then try to break a tackle or two for a big play. And that's what he'll be asked to do this season in Bill Cubit's offense. It's because of that I expect Young to surpass his numbers (571 yards, 4.4 yards per carry, three touchdowns) from last season in 2013.
Though there are reasons to believe that might not be the case. First of all, we can't be sure how many carries Young will get in 2013. I mean, there were four Big Ten quarterbacks who had more carries than Young last season, and that was when we were a rushing offense.
Another factor is that unlike a lot of other positions the Illini actually have decent depth at the running back position.
Both Josh Ferguson and Dami Ayoola combined to rush for 429 yards last season as well and both will get carries again in 2013. How much we can't be sure, as Young should be the featured back, but Ferguson seems to be the much more effective back catching passes out of the backfield. Young actually caught more balls (38 to 29) than Ferguson did last season but Ferguson averaged 8.7 yards per reception while Young was at 4.5. So I'd expect to see a lot of Ferguson on third downs with Ayoola spelling Young from time to time in running situations.
And Ayoola is an intriguing option. While Young is the clear-cut No. 1, Ayoola was somewhat impressive when he got a chance to play last season, especially considering he was a true freshman. He only carried the ball 26 times, which is a small sample size, but he had the best per carry average of any back on the team at 4.5 yards per carry. He also scored two touchdowns, which is one less touchdown than Young had in 131 carries. He's not as big as Young, but at 5'10 and 205 pounds he's not exactly tiny, either.
I wouldn't be shocked if Ayoola ends up as the team's second-leading rusher ahead of Ferguson.
Position Grade: B
I really do like this position and the options the Illini have. And of course this would be the position I'm most confident in when the Illini are becoming a passing offense because we're Illinois and that's just the way shit seems to go down.
2012 Stats And Big Ten Rankings
1,534 rushing yards (11th), 3.46 yards per carry (12th)*, 12 touchdowns (12th), 46 rushes of greater than 10 yards (8th), eight rushes of greater than 20 yards (10th)
1,800 rushing yards, 4.2 yards per carry, 18 touchdowns, 60 rushes of greater than 10 yards, 12 rushes of greater than 20 yards
*This stat is very misleading because for some reason college football still counts yards lost on a sack against the team's rushing totals. So Nate Scheelhaase was sacked 39 times for a loss of 195 yards last season. When you subtract those numbers from the Illini totals their per carry average goes up to 4.28, which isn't great but it's much better than 3.46.