Illinois’ Paul Petrino challenges senior Jason Ford
By herb Gould firstname.lastname@example.org August 7, 2011 10:58PM
Illinois running back Jason Ford (21) runs with the ball against Indiana during the first half of the NCAA college football game in Champaign, Ill., Saturday, Oct. 23, 2010. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)
Updated: September 9, 2011 12:44AM
CHAMPAIGN — To outsiders, the assumption is that Plan A is for senior Jason Ford to seize the tailback job by the throat the way Mikel Leshoure did last fall, when Leshoure ran his way into the NFL a year early.
To offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, though, Plan B isn’t far behind.
It comes in the form of two talented true freshmen, Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson, who have the potential to become viable options very quickly.
Petrino threw down the gauntlet to Ford on Sunday at Illinois’ football media day.
‘‘I need to see Jason run downhill, violent, and get up and do it again,’’ Petrino said. ‘‘Just wear the defense out.
‘‘There were games last year where he punished people even more than Mikel at times. The biggest thing is the ability to do that over and over, and wake up the next morning and do it again.’’
Early in their Illini careers, there were times when Ford appeared to be ahead of Leshoure, and both needed to drop weight.
But a combination of Ford’s tendency to be slowed by nagging ankle injuries and the broken jaw that Leshoure apparently received in a locker-room tussle with teammate Jeff Cumberland helped Leshoure pull ahead.
‘‘He got his jaw broken, and he lost that weight, and it stayed down,’’ coach Ron Zook said. ‘‘That’s probably the best thing that happened to him.’’
The 6-foot Ford reported last week at slightly under 240 pounds, a little short of the 232 his coaches were looking for. But Zook is encouraged that Ford ‘‘made every time, made all of his runs, this summer. He’s never done that before. A year ago at this time, I’d have said Jason Ford is gonna be the guy. Mikel proved me wrong. But Jason has the God-given ability to be as good a running back as we’ve had.’’
Ford said he’s ready to take Petrino’s challenge.
‘‘I feel like I just need to keep doing the same things,’’ Ford said. ‘‘I want to stay in better health, but it’s pretty hard for the type of running back I am. Nobody wants to hit me up high. They always go for my shins or my ankles. I get banged up a lot.
‘‘I just have to get more treatment and stay flexible, keep those nagging injuries off.’’
Meanwhile, Young, a 6-foot, 215-pounder from Houston who apparently slipped through the Texas recruiting cracks because of high school injuries, and the undersized Ferguson, a 5-10, 185-pound blur from Joliet Catholic, left Zook and Petrino beaming the first three days of practice.
‘‘I knew Donovonn was real downhill, and Josh was real fast,’’ Petrino said. ‘‘What excited me was, on film they’re interchangeable at times. Donovonn can make cuts and has vision. And Josh can run up [the middle]. You don’t want to get too high too early, but I’m really excited about them.’’
That means Ford will have to earn his chance to follow in Leshoure’s footsteps.
‘‘Is Jason capable of putting up the numbers Mikel did? Possibly,’’ Petrino said. ‘‘He might not get as many touches. Those two freshmen are awfully good.’’