Growing Up in a Hurry

CHAMPAIGN – Compared to his peers, Donovonn Young is the haggard, old veteran of the Illinois backfield.

Two months shy of his 20th birthday, the sophomore has more than five times the career carries (101) than the rest of the Illini tailbacks combined.

Age is just a number to Young, who says rushing for 473 yards and six touchdowns last season was an acceptable acclimation period.

"You know what? I feel like the field waits for no one," Young says, answering his own question. "I have to be ready every time I step out there. I've got to go out there with a mindset that nobody is going to stop me."

He has to be the alpha now because there are no Jason Fords or Troy Pollards above him in class standing. He's at the head of the line, joined by redshirt freshman Josh Ferguson, who was sidelined last season after injuring his hamstring three games into the season, and newcomer Dami Ayoola.

While junior quarterback Miles Osei and tight end Jon Davis have spent time in the backfield, it appears the young contingent of tailbacks will receive the bulk of the carries.

"Young legs, that's good," quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. "The running back position, I think it's one of those things where the younger the legs are the better. I think you talk to any NFL running back and they wish they were 20 years old again like some of our guys are now."

Young and Ferguson came in together last summer, so naturally the two are good friends with a built in close competition. Both played last season – Young averaged 5.2 yards a carry when his name was called and Ferguson was in the mix until his injury.

In the spring, Ferguson edged ahead was named No. 1 on the depth chart entering the summer.

However, for most of August, Young and Ferguson have spent equal time with the starting offense, essentially relegating the tag "No. 1 running back" to a nominal term

"It's nothing that we've talked about or anything," Ferguson said. "We'll both be playing. We're both in this offense together."

As if it were possible, the current third string tailback brings the medium age down even further. Ayoola has yet to see his 19th birthday, but has played well enough this preseason to position himself for a role on Saturdays this fall.

"You don't really know about the freshmen until they get going," Scheelhaase said. "He's got a nice running back skill set. He knows how to read blocks. He knows how to catch the ball out of the backfield, and he knows the position really well. Anytime you've got that in a freshman it makes them a whole lot more advanced than I guess you expect."

From a physical standpoint, the youth could be stretched into a positive. Less carries means less experience, which in turn means less pain and punishment withstood in the past.

However, wear and tear isn't the only result of experience. Knowledge comes too, as carrying the football is one of many duties a tailback has during any given play. That's a message the staff is conveying at every opportunity.

"Four things that the coaches emphasize here is that we're a runner first, and also a blocker, receiver and a faker," Young said. "I feel like if I place emphasis on those type of things then I'll be alright."

And if the trio reaches it's potential, the offense should be much easier for Scheelhaase. There may be a new offensive scheme in play at Illinois, but balance is still a desired trait.

"There's going to come a time when you've got to run the ball," Scheelhaase said. "You're going to have a few games with probably terrible weather. You're going to have a few defenses that are trying to take away everything you've been doing well, so you're going to need both of those things. To have running backs that can run the ball and go downhill and get chunk yards and make big plays at times is huge."

With that importance in mind, Young was asked to list his personal goals for the season. He said simply: "We need wins."

Spoken like a true vet.

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