Huskies, Illini hope volume makes up for lack of star power
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Illinois head coach Ron Zook expects the Illini to use four running backs in its season opener Saturday at home against Arkansa State.
Northern Illinois led the Mid-American Conference and ranked seventh nationally in rushing last season with 260.4 yards per game.
Illinois led the Big Ten and ranked 11th nationally in rushing last season with 246.1 yards per game.
Both schools rode their running games to single-season school records for scoring (NIU 38.0 ppg and Illinois 32.5 ppg).
Considering NIU returns all five of its offensive linemen and Illinois returns its best four offensive linemen — and both teams welcome back dual-threat stars at quarterback — there's little reason not to expect both schools to rank among the nation's best again this fall.
Except for one monstrous catch: Both schools lost their prime-time running backs.
Illinois' Mikel Leshoure took advantage of his record-setting 2010 performance (1,697 rushing yards and 17 scores) and went in the NFL draft's second round to the Detroit Lions, where he suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon tear on Aug. 8.
NIU's Chad Spann took his 2,916 career rushing yards and 49 rushing TDs to the Indianapolis Colts, where the free-agent signee continues to fight for a toehold on special teams or the practice squad.
How are the Illini and Huskies plotting to replace their outsized production? Volume.
When they start their respective seasons on Saturday — Arkansas State comes to Illinois while Army visits NIU — both schools plan to rotate as many as four running backs to maximize their collective effect.
At Illinois, senior Jason Ford starts ahead of true freshmen Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson along with fifth-year senior Troy Pollard.
Illini coach Ron Zook anticipated Ford would be his team's feature back last year, but that was before Ford packed on too many pounds and Leshoure slashed his body fat below 5 percent.
Apparently Ford, who owns 1,362 career yards with 19 scores, learned something from Leshoure's example. He's down in the 230-pound neighborhood and dropped his body fat below 10 percent.
Zook even referred to the new-look Ford as "Big Sexy" on Tuesday.
"I think this is the first time in at least two years, but I think three years, where he has come back on campus healthy," Zook said. "He's had a great camp. He's stronger. He's faster. I saw him make some moves in (Camp) Rantoul that I hadn't seen him make since he was a freshman."
The 215-pound Young is a runner in Ford's mold — though he's virtually all muscle — while Naperville native Ferguson will serve as the shifty runner catching Nathan Scheelhaase's option pitches and getting to the outside.
At Northern Illinois, 5-foot-9, 180-pound senior Jasmin Hopkins gets the initial nod as the team's most well-rounded tailback.
"He's a very hungry guy," first-year NIU coach Dave Doeren said. "He runs with a purpose."
Then the Huskies list their next three runners — converted wide receiver Akeem Daniels and junior-college transfers Jamal Womble and Leighton Settle — as equals.
Settle (5-10, 194) and Womble (5-11, 246) made cases for more carries during fall camp.
"(Settle) was probably the most raw of the four," Doeren said. "He was a multisport athlete (in high school) and didn't lift weights and went to a junior college and played right away. The seven months he's been here in the weight room has really changed his ability to do things.
"Jamal Womble has gotten in much better shape. He's running with a burst. He has always rumbled, but now he's got a real good burst. He's down 14-15 pounds from where he was in the spring."
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