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Ferguson's progress excites Illini coach

5/25/2012

Illinois coach Tim Beckman called the team's running back depth a major concern entering spring practice.

"We've only got really three running backs on scholarships," Beckman told ESPN.com in March. "I've never been at a place where there hasn't been more than four or five."

Illinois is still fighting the numbers game to a degree. The roster includes only three scholarship running backs -- Donovonn Young, Josh Ferguson and Ean Days -- none of whom are juniors or seniors. Three incoming running back recruits join the team this summer.

Depth isn't a strength, but Beckman emerged from the spring feeling better about the group. The main reason: Ferguson. The 5-foot-10, 180-pound redshirt freshman, who sat out last season because of lingering hamstring issues, impressed his new coach throughout the spring session.

Ferguson delighted the Illini faithful in the spring game, displaying excellent speed and racking up 130 rush yards on 20 carries, including a 68-yard scamper. Beckman wasn't surprised by Ferguson's performance.

"He wasn't a common name last year because he didn't play," Beckman told ESPN.com last week. "But Josh had a really good spring. ... I saw it, really, going back to February when we started workouts. You can tell he has a great knack for the game, works extremely hard."

Although Illinois had its problems under former coach Ron Zook, it typically ran the ball well. The Illini finished in the top 20 nationally in rushing four times in five seasons starting in 2006. Maintaining a consistent rushing effort will be key as Illinois goes back to a spread offense under Beckman.

"We've got to find ways to get the ball to our playmakers," Beckman said. "That's going to be the key on offense."

While Illinois needs more players to emerge and fit such a description, it appears to have found one in Ferguson.