DeAndre Smith has only been on the Illinois staff one year, but the running back coach has already helped propel Mikel Leshoure into a record-breaking season and 2nd round NFL draft choice. He hopes to produce more top backs in the future.
However, the top two returning backs sat out part of the spring with injuries, necessitating some movement of personnel to provide depth. Jason Ford is expected to start, but he sat out half the spring with a nagging tendon strain in the back of his knee. Smith tempered his remarks on the stocky Ford as a result.
"J. Ford is gonna be J. Ford. He gets his weight down and keeps it down, he'll be fine."
Ford had reduced his weight sufficiently by the start of spring ball to show more quickness.
"Oh yeah, his weight has been down. And he is a lot more confident. Obviously, he's got a chance to really step up and do some things. He's played well, he really has."
Smith was excited about Ford's backup Troy Pollard, who was doing the best work of his career before a mild concussion forced him to miss the last week of spring. He ran around and through the defense when healthy. He even moved the pile despite being relatively small.
"I think Troy had a tremendous spring. He made me feel great. I'm comfortable with him as a coach because the kid can do everything we want him to do, whether running inside or outside, catching the ball. He's been a great leader, he's played a lot of football. He's a veteran, so he's on his way."
The concussion may have been a blessing in disguise.
"He's a little guy, so we've got to take those hits away from him a little bit. So really it worked out great for us in the end."
Third in line Bud Golden also missed some reps this spring with a minor injury, but he ran hard when healthy.
"Bud Golden has made a tremendous stride from the bowl practices to what he's able to do now. He's gonna really help us. He's coming along."
Redshirt freshman Ean Days was a running back in high school, so he was moved there from safety to bolster the running game when others had to sit. Smith was pleasantly surprised by the result.
"He's coming along great. Great kid, great attitude. He's gonna be a physical-type runner. For him just to be here a few days, and to do some things he's been able to do, he's pretty knowledgeable."
Days has much to learn but has natural skills for the position.
"The only way he can be successful (so far) is because he has really good vision. He doesn't really understand what we're doing yet, but we say, 'Go this way,' and his ability takes over. He'll help us down the road."
So he isn't being moved back to defense?
"This wasn't a temporary thing. We're bringing him over so he can help us win games."
Smith may have found another runner out of necessity this spring. Fullback Jay Prosch, who has gained a great reputation as a 250 pound blocking fullback, got some carries this spring. He showed surprising speed to go with his natural strength and aggression. He even flashed a few moves.
"That's another thing. We have talented individuals on this football team. We make no bones about it. I play the best guys. If you don't play, we'll get another guy in there.
"We know Prosch can carry the ball. We know he can pass protect. We knew, and now we've got something to work with. We can implement that if we need to."
Prosch and backup Chris Willett each carried the ball from the fullback slot as well in the spring.
"I work with the running backs and the fullbacks, so there's a lot carryover with the running game. It's an easy transition to do it."
There are two more possibilities at running back for the 2011 season. Incoming freshmen Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson are expected to challenge for playing time also. If all the upperclassmen return healthy, adding these two should give the Illini the stable of running backs they need according to Smith.
"And then we bring those two young guys in. When they fit in, we'll be okay."