Freshman halfback duo hits ground running in 1st game

They may be just one game and 12 total carries into their college careers, Illinois freshmen running backs Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson have already come up with their own nickname.

“We call ourselves ‘5-6 In the Mix,’” Young said, referencing his and Ferguson’s respective jersey numbers.

“Me and Donovonn made that up a while ago, before camp, and it kinda stuck,” Ferguson said.

While the duo’s nickname may have originated a while ago, it certainly is fitting now as the pair seems poised to play a vital role in Illinois’ running back rotation throughout the season.

“(I wanted to) get them in there,” head coach Ron Zook said. “We made the decision … that we felt like they were both going to play, we were going to need them both. You only had two other guys. Right now, we don’t have enough running backs if you look at it.”

The duo seemed ready for the challenge Saturday in their first game in orange and blue. Ferguson recorded six carries for 15 yards to go with a four-yard reception while Young picked up 39 yards rushing on six carries. Ferguson said getting in the game early made the adjustment a little easier.

“It was an awesome experience,” Ferguson said of Saturday’s game. “We got out there pretty early, so that was good. The game speed we have to adjust to for sure, but we’ll be all right.”

Young said his adjustment period lasted until about halftime.

“I was really nervous,” Young said of the moments leading up to the game. “But toward the second half I was fine. I was hyped and ready to go for the second half. I got a couple hits in, so it was good.”

That certainly seemed to be true, as Young highlighted his first game with a 24-yard scamper early in the fourth quarter, including a surprise for even himself.

“I put a move on the guy, and I didn’t even know I could make a move like that,” Young said with a laugh. “I might have some more moves in store in the future.”

Young also acknowledged there is plenty of work still to be done in his game.

“I think there’s a lot of room for improvement,” Young said. “I’m a freshman, but I expect a lot from myself, and I think there’s a lot that I need to work on, so it’s just going back to the drawing board now.”

While the Illini coaching staff isn’t sure what the running back rotation will look like from week to week — the coaches say they like to ride whichever runner is playing well on a particular day — both Young and Ferguson seem to have convinced Zook they will be up to the challenge when called upon, both for this season and in the future.

“Both of them are just going to get better and better as they play,” Zook said.

*Coaches confident in decision not to redshirt O’Toole*

While Young and Ferguson stood out in their debuts, a more interesting, and certainly unexpected, premiere was made by freshman quarterback Reilly O’Toole, one of the top recruits in Illinois’ 2011 class.

O’Toole, who led Wheaton Warrenville South high school to back-to-back Illinois state championships, had been widely expected to redshirt this season due in large part to the presence of established sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. But with 3:20 left in the fourth quarter, O’Toole marched onto the field and led the Illini for five plays. Barring serious injury, the move ends O’Toole’s chances of redshirting this season and gaining a fifth year of eligibility.

“We talked a lot about it, and we’ve been talking about it all through camp and everything,” Zook said. “He’s a young man that, God forbid anything happens to Nathan, we’re going to need both him and (backup quarterback) Miles (Osei).”

O’Toole did leave Saturday’s game with an apparent shoulder injury after a hard hit, but later tests revealed no serious damage and the injury isn’t expected to force him out of action for an extended period of time. Zook said that as long as O’Toole is healthy, Illini fans can expect to see him out on the field from time to time.

“I just think we made the decision to go with him, now we’ll end up playing him,” Zook said.

*Penalty-free Illini make history*

When the final whistle sounded on Illinois’ victory over Arkansas State, many players focused on starting the season 1-0 for the first time since 2006 and the good feelings the victory gave them.

One of the overlooked aspects of the game, though, was the fact that Illinois didn’t commit a single penalty on the afternoon, the first time an Illini squad had managed to do so since Nov. 20, 1993, when the Illini fell to then-No. 14 Wisconsin.

While defensive coordinator Vic Koenning acknowledged that the feat was “awesome,” he said it didn’t come without some good luck as well.

“There was a couple they could have called,” Koenning said. “We got lucky. We hit the quarterback one time that they didn’t call and could have been. We had some called like that last year … I know that that doesn’t happen very often, particularly in the first game.”

Koenning said a team can’t do much to avoid penalties other than keep it out of the players’ minds.

“You just go as hard as you can, you try not to make them scared,” he said.

The Illini were one of just three FBS teams not to commit a penalty this past weekend, joining Navy and Eastern Michigan, both of which also won their games.