The Fighting Illini have many questions that need to be answered as the season begins, but there is one position that is about as solid as an oak. The running backs in the Illinois roster are not currently considered among the best in the nation, or even in the B1G, but it won't be long before people start to notice.
There is no better position group on the roster. If the Illini were a spaceship, the running backs would be the engines. The ship wouldn't move without them nor would it reach its destination. (To further this analogy: the O-line would be life support, the quarterback would be the laser cannons, the linebackers would be shields, etc.)
Junior Josh Ferguson was the leading rusher from 2013, but what you really need to know about him pertains to the goal he could hit.
Ferguson is on pace right now to become the all-time leader in all purpose yards in Illinois history. He has two years, barring injury or an early-round projection for the 2015 Draft, to gain 2,781 yards so he can pass the great Robert Holcombe, who currently sits in 14th place among all B1G players for all purpose yards.
Holcombe played from 1994 to 1997, totaling 4,724 all purpose yards. He averaged 273 rushing attempts per season during his last three years. That's comes out to be a ludicrous 25 attempts per game, and a slightly above mediocre 4.4 yards per carry during his career. He's not one of the best athletes in Illinois history, but he may have claim to most durable.
Last year, Ferguson had 191 touches (rushing or reception) all season which only comes out to be 16 per game, averaging 5.5 ypc, 6.2 yards per touch, and a total of 1314 all purpose yards. Let's just assume he improves by 15 percent -- meaning he could achieve over 1,500 total yards, which is less than many people are predicting for him -- and Ferguson already moves into 4th on the all-time Illini list leaving 1,281 yards remaining to take care of during his senior season.
The best part of Ferguson though is that he is the perfect running back to fit into Offensive Coordinator Bill Cubit's offense. The Illini offense is going to be a passing offense, but it benefits the team that Ferguson can be so adaptable. Passing yards accounted for 41.2 percent of his total production last season because Cubit can trust that Ferguson is just a much a threat in the flats as he is between the tackles. There is a moment every time he touches the ball where I catch myself hoping that he breaks it for a touchdown, because he can. He's fast and elusive, a combination that will turn him into a one of the best backs in the B1G by next year.
However, we (I) need to realize that there are other running backs on this team. Second on the depth chart is senior Donovonn Young. At six feet tall and 220 pounds, he's the biggest back on the roster, and definitely the most costly to take down. Where Ferguson runs past and around, Young runs at and through.
Last year, Young started off relatively strong, racking up 269 rushing yards on 61 carries (4.4 ypc) and three touchdowns in his first five games, but never found the same gear for the rest of the season. He' a better player than that and word from Camp Rantoul said that his confidence has returned and he looks more like the back we all know he can be. This is good news for Illini fans and Ferguson. Any time the offense can add a new element of complexity, it makes it more difficult for opposing defenses to stop them.
Redshirt sophomore Devin Church waits behind Young. A 3-star recruit, he's got quickness and vision, but a lack of size. Personally, I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do. He'll get a few chances every once in a while when Ferguson and Young need a break.
After the top three you have redshirt freshman Kendrick Foster, who looks like our lead back some day in the future, but will right now have to wait at least another year.
There's also Cameron Tucker, who coincidentally shares his name with the character from the ABC show, Modern Family. What makes this even more strange is that Cam in Modern Family "played" for the Fighting Illini as a starting O-lineman.
Like I said before, the Illini are going to be a pass first offense, but with a new quarterback and a group of unknown receivers, there's a good chance that the running backs get to carry a little more of the load here in 2014. Lucky for all of us, they are more than capable of dealing with it.