IlliniInquirer.com will break down each position group daily for the next nine days. Day 1 focused on the quarterbacks. Today, we focus on the ball carriers.
The starter: Josh Ferguson, senior
Injured: Dre Brown, freshman (torn ACL – out for season)
Josh Ferguson is one of the most dynamic offensive weapons in the Big Ten. Defenses have to account for him on every play. But there's a lot on his plate. First, Mikey Dudek's early absence means that 1) defenses might put more concentrated focus on Ferguson 2) Ferguson may have to play more in the slot. Also, neither of the top backups has one carry of Division I collegiate experience.
Ferguson is at his best in space, of course, and behind a shaky offensive line, expect offensive coordinator Bill Cubit to line up Ferguson all over the field. Ferguson has had a few injuries in his past and also often appears to run out of gas in the fourth quarter, when Illinois needs him most. So the Illini would prefer to keep him close to 20 touches per game. But that requires someone behind him to step up.
Behind Ferguson, it's all questions. It would've been a deep group had freshman Dre Brown --- who has great vision, quick feet and veteran-like blocking skills, though he may lack top-end size or speed --- not suffered a torn ACL during spring practice. At the time, Brown had solidified himself as the No. 2 back.
Now, four-star freshman back Ke'Shawn Vaughn will get a huge opportunity. The Nashville native is well-built with good, though not elite, speed. He is a decisive, instinctual runner who appears to be a good fit in a zone-blocking scheme. His high school film is simply dominating, but of course it won't be as easy in the Big Ten. The Illini know Vaughn might be raw early, but if those talents translate, he could be the No. 2 they so sorely need to take the burden off Ferguson.
Henry Enyenihi's adjustment to Big Ten football wasn't a smooth one during the spring. Illinois signed the 5-foot-11, 225-pound chiseled back to be a tough, short-yardage runner immediately. But he was tentative to start, to the dismay of Bill Cubit, who rode Enyenihi hard during camp. The switch may have flipped on late though, as Enyenihi ran for 92 yards on 16 carries in the spring game, including a 43-yard touchdown burst. Illinois would love if Enyenihi could become the redzone and late-game-salt-it-away rusher. But the jury's still out.
Freshman Reggie Corbin is of the Ferguson mold – shorter (5-foot-8), smaller (185 pounds) but elusive with good hands – though he may not have the top-end speed. He will be the versatile back of the future. He is a good redshirt candidate, but head coach Tim Beckman mentioned him as one of the freshmen who have stuck out early.
Digging deep. redshirt sophomore Kendrick Foster and redshirt freshman Julian Hylton are basically opposites. Foster is a mighty mite. He's strong (huge legs) but short (5-foot-7) and on the slow side. Hylton, who repped at running back during the spring but is currently listed as a defensive back, is a good athlete but an upright and slight runner (6-foot, 200 pounds). Both produced big numbers in high school, but have a lot of work to do to get on the field in meaningful moments.