The recent past of Illinois Fighting Illini football has been a roller coaster ride with all sorts of twists and turns, ups and downs. A good majority of the work was done through long-time quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, but the veteran finally expired his eligibility after last season and left a wake of uncertainty behind him on the depth chart. With so many questions still being juggled in the air, it’s time for running back Josh Ferguson to become a reliant weapon in Illinois’ happy-go-lucky offense.
One reason to fear the immediate future of the quarterback position at Illinois doesn’t actually deal with the quarterbacks themselves — whoever that may end up being. The Illini lose 2,060 receiving yards from a year ago, most notably standout Steve Hull, who was targeted 19 percent of the time. The next leading producer from 2013 was Ferguson, who came out of the backfield for 520 yards on 50 catches.
Because of the loss of Scheelhaase and a whole slew of receivers, Illinois will need to rely on Ferguson even more heavily this season. His role within the offense should not change, but it needs to be amplified if Illinois wants to put together a productive offense behind the uncertainty at quarterback and wide receiver.
Ferguson will be pleased to be working behind an offensive line that remains mostly intact from a season ago. Four returnees have a combined 94 career starts on the line, making it one of the most experienced units on the team. Ferguson pounded out 779 yards last season, but that was done on not even 12 carries per game. His became especially useful in the Big 10 when Illinois was desperate for answers to keep up with the likes of Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio State.
Though he will probably see a few more opportunities this season, don’t expect a significant increase in carries. Because of Illinois’ tendency to pass first, and because of how often Ferguson is used in the passing game, there’s no way this offense wants to give 20 carries a game to Ferguson. They see opportunities elsewhere, which isn’t a bad thing.
Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt will likely take the handle at quarterback this season. A risk-taker himself, Lunt naturally fits in with Illinois’ offense, run by offensive coordinator Bill Cubit. Illinois is a past-first team, and Lunt could really benefit from that mindset.
This also means big things for Ferguson, who should be coming out of the backfield as a receiver just as often as he did last season. That option created many opportunities for Illinois in the passing game, and it’s no secret that Ferguson needs to be a part of anything possible when it comes to moving the ball down field.
It’s a two-way street in Champaign; Ferguson needs to be able to help replace the losses at quarterback and wide receiver, and Illinois, while still using that happy-go-lucky, pass-first offense, has to make sure it’s getting Ferguson those opportunities.