Engaged & Invested

The running back unit, led by Donovonn Young, is enjoying success this spring in offensive coordinator Bill Cubit's new scheme.

CHAMPAIGN - Donovonn Young was one of the last players to leave the field following both practices this week, the motive for dragging his feet on opposite ends of the emotional spectrum.

On Wednesday he stayed late, enthusiastically holding the football for students kicking field goals. The coaching staff opened the practice to the student body, and Young laughed and carried on dramatically as one young lady, a soccer player, in fact, nailed a 30-yarder.

Young lingered Monday for a different reason.

Involved in an altercation with an unspecified defensive player during practice, Young spoke with running backs coach Tim Salem to cool down before entering the locker room, saying, "once I go in there it's over. It stays on the football field."

This is an engaged Donovonn Young, spirited, emotional and invested.

It's the way he's conditioned himself to participate to the fullest after last season's 2-10 record, a year in which Young rushed for a team-high 571 yards and averaged 4.4 yards per carry.

His biggest adjustment due to the failures of the past?

"Attitude," he answers without hesitation. "I mean, that was the first time I'd been through something like that. I felt like I wasn't all the way in it. After a while, it was just like, ah, whatever. But I've learned that no matter the circumstances, have a good attitude and to show people you're down for the cause. Just let people know that you're willing to do anything to help."

There's no indication Young quit on plays or stopped giving effort in practice last season. One of his best outings, statistically speaking, came at season's end, a 50-14 loss at Northwestern. But he admits it was hard to fight off negative thoughts, near impossible to find silver linings in loss after loss.

Due to the record and the role running backs played, it was difficult to stay positive according to sophomore Dami Ayoola.

"Last year was more of a spread offense," he said. "The running backs were more involved in the passing game. It was more of a pass first offense, and we had to protect more and memorize more plays."

That style of offense went out with former co-coordinators Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales, both of whom are no longer with the program.

Replaced by Bill Cubit, the former Western Michigan head coach brought in a new system, one that's more favorable to the tailbacks.

"Definitely more designed running back runs, where last year we had more zone reads where the quarterback had the option to pull it or give it," Ayoola said. "This year it's more where the running backs know we're getting the ball, so we have to read our holes proper. It's definitely a better offense for a running back."

Young is now a junior, Josh Ferguson a redshirt sophomore and Ayoola a rising sophomore.

On a team certainly with many question marks and concerns about depth, running back is as stable a unit as there is. Still, Young says that's not a victory -- it's more of a start to a conversation that has to become increasingly more serious.

"I feel like the running backs are a strength of this offense, but I feel like we need to step up and show other people," Young said. "People know we're decent, but we need to establish that we're the group that's going to take the offense to the next level. I feel like once we do that other positions will want to take it to the next level."

So far, the group has taken Young up on his challenge. Although Beckman said Wednesday's practice was a minor setback due to too many turnovers, he added the backs have, "had a little bit of success, and they feel good about that and they feel good about the scheme."

At this point, Young is the favorite to command the most carries. Ferguson has been limited with an ankle injury, and this is Ayoola's first spring. All three figure to get touches in the fall, but now entering his third year, Young appears to have matured in his approach, which has solidified his status.

"I think he grasps the offense," Beckman said. "I think he understands the opportunity is a little bit greater with this offense."

During the day off on Tuesday, Young met with Cubit, asking him for any advice to get better. Cubit directed him to the film room, told him to chart every run from last season.

So that's what Young did.

"He told me to mark down all the zone plays, all the power plays and what I did on those plays and the yards that I made on that play compared to the yards I made on this play and to note what I did differently."

This is an engaged Donovonn Young, studious, efficient and invested.

"I just wanted to know when I go in and watch film what should I be looking for?" he said.

And that's a question that can be turned around -- when it comes to running backs, what are the coaches looking for? What do they need to see by spring's end?

Ayoola says it's big play potential.

"I feel like that's something we were lacking last year," he said. "There were plays that were left on the field that could have been 30-yard gains that were only four, so we need to show the coaching staff that we can make a move on the safety and get to the next level."

An increase in chunk-yardage gains would help, as Illinois was third-to-last in the country last season in yards per play.

While big plays are certainly encouraged, Beckman said the goal for the running backs is to be a steady, dependable force.

"They are the veteran position so the expectation level is higher for them to be consistently good, if it's in pass protection, if it's in carrying the football, if it's in catching the football out of the backfield," Beckman said. "They just have to be consistent."

Young seems to have an understanding of what is expected.

"Coaches always want to know that they can count on somebody, count on a certain player," he said. "I think Coach Beckman needs to know that when he puts a guys out there, this is what he's going to do. If we just work on being consistent and going out there and doing our job, not worrying about the big play, and when the big play comes making it, I think we'll be good. We'll be alright."

This is an engaged Donovonn Young, positive, upbeat and invested.

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