"The thing you like about both of those kids is that they're hard workers. They both come from great football programs. I didn't have to spend a lot of time with those kids teaching them how to work. I can spend my time getting them ready to play."
Many had concerns about Young's speed, but early practices have eased that concern. The shifty and fast Ferguson has also wowed coaches in a short time. Physically, both are extremely gifted and tough.
"They're extremely fast. Josh Ferguson is fast and quick. Donovonn Young is a powerful young man. If they play fast, they'll appear to go really fast. That's just because of how they've worked."
With all the excitement surrounding the Illini freshmen, Smith wants to emphasize the importance of senior Jason Ford as well, who will be expected to shoulder a great amount of the rushing demand this year.
"I think it can be a bit misleading because he's not a visually outward emotional guy, but he's put in work. He's done everything I've asked him to do. He's ready. He has the right mindset. So I expect great things from him."
There have been concerns about Ford's weight in the past, but if anybody knows what he needs to be a premier running back in the Big Ten, it's Ford himself.
"Absolutely. He understands what it takes. When you've been in this program and you've seen the (Rashard) Mendenhalls and the (Mikel) Leshoures, he understands what it takes. He understands that if he does everything we ask him to do, he'll be the guy to get the football and carry the load for us."
With such depth at the position, competition will surely drive each of the backs to another level of performance as camp and the season progress. Ford is the apparent starter, but Smith won't guarantee anything. The competition will ultimately prove who the feature backs will be.
"Competition is the best thing about my job right now. I don't want to shortchange Troy Pollard and Ean Days because those kids are working too. It's a good group. They're special. They like to work. That competition is fun to watch because you can see guys give extra effort now with those young guys in there."
Sometimes it can be hard, especially for running backs, to jump into the mix as freshmen. But Smith already sees the hard work of Young and Ferguson as a sign they came to play.
"I think they basically came in and said, ‘Hey, we want to be a part of this group.' I never had a problem with my group working hard. I think they're just falling in line with that. They want to be part of the group and do whatever it takes to help us win."
Young was a surprising pickup late in the recruiting process. Smith has high hopes for the Texan.
"Physically, he's a good looking guy. I like his attitude. I like the fact that he wants to be really good, and he works at it. He's a smart individual, and I think that's what impresses me the most."
With such a great set of physical tools and abilities, it's still a mystery to many, Smith included, how Young actually fell through the recruiting cracks and ended up at Illinois. Regardless of how it happened, Smith knows that other schools' miss is definitely the Illini's gain.
"I absolutely have no idea. But that's okay. I'll take that. We're going to go with it, and we're going to work with it. He's going to use it as motivation, coming from a state that produces a lot of good football players. He'll be fine and take advantage of every opportunity he has and make the most of it."
The Big Ten is a physical conference. Usually that would wear down young athletes. However, Smith believes Young will thrive on the physicality of the conference.
"He's not going to have a problem with it. He's going to be physical. He's probably one of the most physical running backs in the country just because that's how he plays. I expect him to keep doing what he's been doing."
With so much depth at the running back position, Smith is a bit spoiled. But he uses that depth as a motivational tool, that any given day could be an opportunity for any of his running backs.
"It's okay but at the same time, tomorrow could be different. Every day I hope that they're all out there getting a chance to be better and work with us every day."
Smith speaks equally highly about Pollard's progress. Pollard has battled constant dings and a nagging knee injury. Now he's at his healthiest and hopes to go out on a high note this year.
"Troy has been as steady as they come. I've been impressed with Troy since the day he got here. The thing with him is keeping him healthy. He's played a lot of football, he's smart, he's knowledgeable. He's a veteran and a guy I expect to play."
For Ford and Pollard, this season will be their last. Not only does Smith have high hopes for their performance on the field, he also has seen a change in their attitude off the field.
"I believe our seniors are supposed to play their best football. I expect Jason and Troy to play the best football they ever played here and be leaders. We stress and emphasize that in our meetings, and that's what I expect them to do."
Illinois always seems to have great success running the ball. With this talented group under the guidance of Smith, the Illini ground game promises to rumble and roll this season.