DeAndre Smith has three returning running backs, all of whom saw time on the field for Illinois in 2010. Jason Ford, Troy Pollard and Bud Golden will battle for playing time this spring and have the advantage of experience with the Illini offense. But Smith also feels incoming freshmen Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young have special skills.
"The plan is to try to find a role for Ferguson and Young. It's just a matter of how long it's gonna take those guys to get comfortable with the offense. I think going in you've got to expect those guys to help us at some point next year."
Ferguson is only around 5'-9" and 170 pounds, but he has the speed other Illinois backs lack.
"Oh yeah, definitely. He has a burst I think we were missing a little bit at times. I think he's gonna give us that. I'm excited about him.
"He's probably one of the first kids when I got here last year that I was able to watch as a junior that got me excited. I was really happy that we ended up getting him. I thought he was a talented young man from day one."
Smith looks for talent over physical size. He says Ferguson reminds him of another quality back he coached before coming to Illinois.
"He's an explosive kid. He's very similar to Garrett Wolfe when I had him at Northern Illinois. Probably the same stature, a whole lot better catcher than Garrett ever was. Maybe not as dynamic of a runner as him, but he's pretty special. He has that burst, he has great balance and then the acceleration that you want in a kid."
On first analysis, it is presumed a small back like Ferguson wouldn't be able to take the pounding of an every down back. But Smith will leave that up to the young man.
"You have to be careful that way. I don't want to limit him, maybe he could be. The same thing was said about Garrett Wolfe, and Garrett Wolfe was a lot smaller than Josh is. Garrett Wolfe carried the ball 25-30 times a game easily. You would think maybe you would want to be smart with him. If he can, we will go with that."
Young was not highly recruited out of Katy, Texas, despite a great senior season. But Smith liked him from the first moment he saw him on film. And Young is confident of his abilities despite the recruiting slight from other major colleges.
"He's a very confident young man. His dad has done a great job as far as that's concerned in putting him in the right situation to develop. He went to a great high school that has a tradition. He works at it, and when you work at it, you feel pretty good about your ability."
If there was a knock on Young, it was his speed. He admits to being a between-the-tackles downhill runner, but there were extenuating circumstances that limited his high school career. He sat out most of his junior year and missed spring conditioning with injuries, and he never got in top shape.
Illini star Mikel Leshoure improved his speed by dedicating himself to proper training and diet. Smith feels Young can do the same thing.
"That's exactly right. I think sometimes when we evaluate or make decisions on what's going on right now we don't say, 'Who knows what this kid's gonna end up being?'
"I know he's gonna do everything he possibly can to get better. He's definitely gonna have a chance to be pretty good. I would expect whatever he was limited in being able to do, he's gonna be able to do it in the future."
Leshoure's success brought attention to the Illinois program. Top running backs are looking for a school that runs the ball, and the Illini are now a definite option for them. Smith says recruiting should be enhanced even more this next year than it was the current recruiting class.
"You would think it would. I think the true test will be this year. Josh Ferguson is a great player, Donovonn is gonna end up being a great player. But I don't think it had anything to do with what we were doing, especially with Donovonn. Josh understood more about the University of Illinois, being from here. That helped.
"But I think this next season, from having what Mikel did, with having what Jason's gonna do, we're all gonna do, I feel like I should be able to get a top kid in the country. There shouldn't be any question about that. We're gonna run the ball, and we're gonna be good at it. We're gonna put back-to-back years together where we're successful that way."
Illini assistant coaches recruit territories in addition to their positions. Besides the running backs, Smith was the primary recruiter for East St. Louis defensive tackle Clint Tucker. He likes what Tucker brings to the table.
"I love Clint. I think Clint is a kid that fits in well with the guys that we have here. A great personality, he was able to have a relationship with Coach (Keith) Gilmore from two years ago. That helped being familiar with the coaches that will coach him.
"I know he feels great about it. The kid comes from a great program, a winning program. If there is an Illinois type of kid, that's what I would say Clint is."
A current Illini player aided the recruiting process, having come from the same high school program. Terry Hawthorne's face lit up when asked about his good friend Tucker.
"They're good friends, and when I would evaluate a couple other kids, I would ask Terry his opinions about those guys. He really is excited about Clint. He really feels Clint is a big-time player."