Running back Donovonn Young gained invaluable experience playing as a true freshman for the Illinois football team last fall. He gained 451 net yards in 87 carries, averaging 5.2 yards a carry and scoring 6 touchdowns. He also caught 8 passes.
He was working hard and proving his value during winter conditioning until a foot stress fracture he suffered in high school reared its ugly head again.
"It's just something that occurred because of some of the workouts we were doing in winter conditioning. It just happened to re-fracture. It wasn't even all the way through.
"I'll be all right. Things happen, and you have to bounce back from them. You have obstacles in life, and it's about how you rebound from them."
Young was able to don pads and see some work the last week of spring ball.
"I'm just doing a little bit, but it's good to be back out there, running around and doing stuff with the team. I miss it. I'm ready to get the pads cracking again."
His injury allowed his friend and classmate Josh Ferguson to receive valuable playing time this spring. They could become a dynamic one-two punch before their careers are complete.
"Josh is doing awesome right now. Josh has been a man in waiting since his hamstring injury last year. He wants to prove that he can hang in the Big Ten. And I know he can from being around him so much.
"He brings a little flash, a little speed to the team. From what I've seen, he's handled himself well and rebounded back greatly."
Doesn't Ferguson's success reduce your playing time?
"Yeah, but in the end, we're all teammates. We just want the team to succeed, so if Josh does great, that's good. If I do great, that's great because it's going to help the team. I'm not looking at it as me against him. Me and Josh are actually best friends, and we push each other."
Ean Days is the only other returning running back, and he hasn't seen much playing time so far in his career. With the physical punishment running backs take with multiple carries each game, is there enough depth?
"I think we're fine. We've got three freshmen running backs coming in. I think me, Josh and Ean will do fine."
It appears the injury didn't prevent Young from learning a complex new offense.
"I took mental reps. Then during team periods, I made sure I watched what's going on carefully. And then in the film room, we took care of what I need to know. I think I'll be all right."
Young looked noticeably stronger and bigger this spring. It is a tribute to his hard work in the off season. Young shares a second important reason for his body build as well.
"I weighed in at 222. I was about to 215 when I came in last fall. I've gotten a little bit bigger. I'm eating right because I don't want to have the Jason Ford syndrome.
"I think it has something to do with my genetics. My dad is a pretty big guy. I've been working hard, but a little bit of it has to do with genetics. My dad always tells me not to get in the weight room too much. He doesn't want me to get too big."
There were rumors Young might leave the team after Coach Ron Zook was fired. That was never the case.
"I was always here. I was worried about the new offense and how things would work out with me. But I feel like if I'm good enough as a player, I'll be all right.
"The new coaching staff did everything they could to give support and let me know that everything would be better. They did their part."
Some running backs prefer a pro-style offense with a fullback providing the lead block. But Young sees opportunities in the spread offense as well, for himself and the team.
"I was in a spread my sophomore year in high school. I wasn't at Katy (Texas), I was at Humble High School. So I know a little bit about it. And we used to vary it up at Katy too. It's not that big of a deal. We did a little bit of spread last year. We have under-center plays. It's a different offense, but I've done it before. Everything looks good.
"In a spread, we have the option of a quarterback running the ball, the running back running the ball, plus passing it. I think that opens up the offense and makes us more dangerous as a team."
Young likes what new coach Tim Beckman is doing to prepare his Illini for the rigors of a tough Big 10 schedule.
"It's a lot about competition. Winning one-on-one battles every day. We make a play at the beginning of practice to get things riled up, get things started.
"I like what's going on, what Coach Beckman's doing. He's bringing more discipline to the team, and that's what I think we need to do to get past the 6-6, move forward and win those other six games."
He is also benefitting from running back coach Tim Salem.
"Coach Salem is a funny guy, but I like him a lot. After every meeting, he asks us how we feel about his performance. The lowest we've given him is a seven. He tries. All these coaches try. Coach Salem stepped up his game in my mind."
Young wears jersey #5, and Ferguson #6. The two created a nickname for themselves as rookies and continue to emphasize their shared role in the Illinois offense.
"I don't see myself as a lead back. Me and Josh will be a one-two punch. Josh does his thing, and I do my thing. We just make things happen...'5 and 6 in the mix.'"