Paul Petrino High On New Freshmen

The Fighting Illini football team brought in some outstanding skill players in its latest recruiting class. There is talent at every position. Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino knows they have a long way to go and must learn the system, but he is excited about their potential.

Paul Petrino likes his Illinois offense to attack all parts of the field. The more skilled players he has, the better he can dominate a defense. His freshman group appears to have talent and depth, allowing him more options in play-calling. Several may see playing time early in their careers, especially since they have had the summer to acclimate.

"I think that's what helps freshmen play early compared with 10 years ago," Petrino explains. "They've been here all summer, and they've been working with the other players all summer. That helps them adjust to the speed of the game. They've seen the speed."

Every practice observer has noticed Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson, the two freshman running backs. Young is strong and powerful, while Ferguson has legitimate speed and quickness.

"I'm really excited about Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson. They're both very explosive, they're quick and have good vision.

"As a running back, Donovonn is good. He can cut on a dime, he's got a great low center of gravity. He runs, he makes cuts. He's a tough, hard-nosed downhill guy.

"Josh, no doubt you'd like to see him catch a pitch on the option and catch those stretch routes as a running back. A lot of that stuff that Mikel did last year, but he'll have an extra gear. Coming in recruiting him, that's what I thought he could be. But after watching him, he'll be a lot more than that. He can do more than just that. He's a good player.

"Those two kids are good football players. What excites me about both of them is, I knew Donovonn was real downhill and Josh was real fast. They wear 5 and 6 right now. Donovonn can make cuts and can do stuff that a good back can do, and Josh can run up in there. I think they're both interchangeable at times.

"Obviously, the biggest thing for them is going to be protection. How much of the protection they can learn might play as big a role as anything on how much they play."

Petrino ranks them alongside two rookie tight ends as his top four prospects on offense.

"If there's definitely four best freshmen when you stand out there and watch, it is those two and Matt LaCosse and Jon Davis. Those four guys are explosive, athletic, really good football players.

"I think the freshman tight ends are two really talented, athletic kids. Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse both can run and catch. They're real exciting."

Petrino is also pleased with new receivers Jeremy Whitlow, Jordan Frysinger and Kenny Knight.

"The freshmen receivers are gonna end up being a good group. You get something different with all of them. I think Jeremy is probably the most explosive and maybe the most advanced.

"Jordan is just quick as a bug. He can stop on a dime, change directions, catch the ball real well. And then Kenny has that big, pretty, long stride. I think all three of them are gonna be good players for us before it's all said and done."

Another newcomer at receiver is fifth year Clemson transfer Brandon Clear. Petrino has plans for him this season.

"He's a great kid and works real hard. One thing I'm excited about: I want to work real hard to see if he can be our fade guy. He's got that good size, he's long. He caught a couple deep fades in practice. It was a pleasant thing to see. No doubt he can have a role for us."

It is too early to provide a fair evaluation of freshman quarterback Reilly O'Toole. There is much to learn; his head is spinning with uncertainty as the Illini offense is installed. But Petrino sees glimpses of talent in his prize freshman.

"You can see his presence. He's got that thing about him. He does some really nice things. A freshman quarterback is gonna have good days and bad days."

Petrino will use upperclassmen much of the time this season. If nothing else, the rookies provide depth. If everyone develops as hoped, he expects to have an explosive offense with multiple options in 2011.

"Obviously, you don't want to get too high too early. But right now I'm excited about them and about our offense period. Now we must keep grinding. If they can just prepare every single day of practice with a great attitude and great work ethic, we're gonna get better every day. Then have our goals high and go for it."

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