Josh Ferguson X-Factor in Running Game for Illinois Fighting Illini in 2013

By Tyler Brett
Rick Osentoski – USA TODAY Sports

The Illinois Fighting Illini suffered through a disastrous 2-10 campaign in 2012 where they failed to win a single conference game. First year head coach Tim Beckman faces heavy scrutiny as the pressure builds for Illinois to get turned back around. There are plenty of areas that the coaching staff must try and fix before next season, but the biggest area of concern may be in their running game.

The Illini scored just 12 touchdowns on the ground last season and ranked No. 99 in rushing, averaging just 127.8 points per game. If they hope to improve on their dismal fortunes in 2013, they need a playmaker to emerge out of the backfield. Redshirt sophomore Josh Ferguson could be that playmaker.

New Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit is working on switching up the offensive philosophy, installing a downhill, one-cut style of running game rather than the read-option that was prevalent last season in the team’s spread offense. Running backs will be attacking the line of scrimmage more this season than last, when many of their runs involved wide sweeps to the outside. While the philosophy may be a little more old-fashioned in terms of the role of the running backs, there is still a place for a dynamic playmaker like Ferguson.

While talking about what he had seen out of Ferguson this spring, Cubit had this to say:

“He gives us something different in space. I’ve never coached a guy who can make tacklers miss like he can.”

Ferguson is quick and elusive, though he was slowed down by hip and ankle injuries last season. He accounted for 312 yards on 75 carries on the ground while catching 29 passes for 251 yards while averaging over 18 yards per kick return. Despite all his touches, however, his only touchdown came on a halfback pass. Next season, he needs to find the endzone with the ball in his hands to make a real difference.

The third-year sophomore is putting in the work this offseason to be a major contributor in the fall. He has bulked up to 195 pounds this spring, up from the 185-pound mark he played at in 2012. That added bulk should help him hold up against the rigors of running between the tackles a little bit better, but hasn’t done anything to take away from his elusive athleticism.

He doesn’t appear ready to be the workhorse in the offense just yet, but he should provide an excellent change-of-pace option for Cubit and the Illinois offense in 2013. If he can break off a few big plays and push the Illini offense into the endzone with a bit more regularity next season, Illinois should enjoy quite a bit more success than they had last year.

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