Injuries open the hole for Days, others to shine

_Editor’s note: Today marks the sixth story in a nine-part Illinois spring football series. From now until the end of the year, two positions will be broken down each week, with a focus on offense on Tuesdays and defense/special teams on Thursdays._

Coming into this spring, senior running backs Jason Ford and Troy Pollard were the logical frontrunners to take over the reins of the Illini backfield. But by the time Saturday’s Orange and Blue scrimmage came around, it was instead a redshirt freshman, one who had made the move to running back just weeks earlier, who got the bulk of the carries.

With Ford and Pollard both sidelined due to injury, Ean Days ended up getting the call from Illinois head coach Ron Zook. Days spent his redshirt year as a defensive back, but jumped at the chance to move back to his high school position after the backfield was cut thin by injuries early in the spring.

“I played running back in high school, so it’s kind of just like coming home,” Days said. “It feels great to be back at running back.”

While Days may have started as just a fill-in due to injuries, Zook said his performance throughout the spring has put him in the mix to get some carries come fall.

“I think Ean maybe found a little niche here,” Zook said. “We stuck him in there after the first week and there’s a lot of offense going on, but I thought he did a great job … He can protect, and that’s important that the running back can protect. He’s tough and he’s got great vision. I think he’s got a chance, he’ll play a lot of running back next year.”

Days will have to continue to earn his chances, though, as the Illini already boast a stable of talented options at running back. Ford enters the season with 1,362 career rushing yards and 19 touchdowns, while Pollard has averaged 5.6 yards per attempt for his career.

However, Ford, who was arrested over the weekend for an arrest warrant on a suspended license charge, was also expected to be the guy in the Illini backfield last season, before an injury gave Mikel Leshoure the opportunity that he never relinquished.

“I don’t think there is any reason why he can’t be the guy, just like Mikel was and Rashard (Mendenhall) was,” Zook said of Ford before his arrest. “We have gone into a lot of years wondering who that guy would be, but of course I am never one to say you only have to have only one back. Very seldom do you see that anymore. Those guys have a tendency to take a lot of hits and they get beat up. The more guys you have that can play, it keeps the guys fresh and keeps them involved in what is going on.”

“Jason is going to be as good as he wants to be and I think he has the chance to be a really good back,” Zook added.

Also in the mix will be sophomore Bud Golden, along with incoming freshmen Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson. Even though he had just eight carries last season for 32 yards and missed time this spring with a foot sprain, Zook said Golden has a chance to turn some heads this fall.

“I don’t think we have (seen everything),” Zook said about Golden’s potential. “I go back to his freshman year at the Rantoul scrimmage. Everybody’s light comes on at a different time, and I think Bud understands that this is an opportunity for his light to come on … There is no reason why Bud shouldn’t be a big part in this thing for us.”

With injuries and inexperience but also potential abundant, offensive coordinator Paul Petrino made it clear that the job is still very much there for the taking.

“It’s between the two freshmen coming in and the guys who are here,” Petrino said. “There’s nobody (ahead) in my opinion, it’s who is gonna come in and get it. It’s wide open, and we’ll have a great camp at Rantoul and coach likes to get after it and bang and hit, so there’s no doubt we’ll know who it is at the end of that, but we surely don’t know who it is right now.”