Illinois football’s running game picking up speed


Brenton Tse | Senior Photographe

Brenton Tse The Daily Illini Illinois’ Justin Hardee (19) runs for a touchdown during the game against Western Kentucky at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014. The Illini won 42-34.

By Charlotte Carroll, Staff writer

Wide receivers Mike Dudek and Justin Hardee will remain out this week for their respective injuries. Head coach Bill Cubit did not say when they are expected to return.

“My whole thing is to get them healthy first and then we’ll figure it all out,” Cubit said. “And it may be where they are not healthy and you don’t have to make a decision and it’s really easy. Health is the most important thing at this point.”

Dudek tore his ACL in practice last spring, while Hardee suffered a broken foot during the offseason.

As the two veterans have sat out, Illinois has struggled in the receiving game. There have been dropped passes, bad timing and missed signals.

The team has also struggled running plays to tight ends because Tyler White suffered a concussion during the North Carolina game. White was evaluated Monday and will be in non-contact drills throughout the week. Cubit hopes to have him back for Saturday’s game.

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    Since the season started, wide receiver Geronimo Allison has led the receiving group, elected team captain three games in a row. Malik Turner and Marchie Murdock have stepped up but Cubit said it takes time to adjust after neither played a lot last season.

    Quarterback Wes Lunt echoed Cubit’s thoughts, saying that both Dudek and Hardee bring a lot to the team, but their biggest challenge is getting the newer guys used to playing more.

    “I think the biggest thing between those two guys and the guys we have now is experience,” Lunt said. “It’s just having that confidence of, ‘hey I’ve played a lot of football and I know what I’m doing is huge.’ Some of these younger guys have doubt creeping up in their minds, and I know I felt the same way when I first started at the college career.”

    Illini backfield steps into the future

    With an offense centered around the pocket presence of Lunt, the Illinois running game has struggled, but against Middle Tennessee State, the prospective future of the Illini backfield appeared.

    Freshman Ke’Shawn Vaughn rushed for 80 yards on 13 carries, including one touchdown. Those 80 yards were the most rushing yards in a game by an Illinois true freshman since Donovan Young ran for 100 yards in 2011.

    Cubit said the first half of the Middle Tennessee game was geared toward star senior running back Josh Ferguson and his style of play. But as Ferguson grew tired, it become all Vaughn in the second half.

    “I thought he really grew up,” Cubit said. “I really like the way he plays, he was patient in his runs, he understood where the unblocked guy was. He’s really a smart, smart player.”

    Vaughn will play a key role for Illinois coaches as they try to determine how to keep Ferguson in the game until the end. Ferguson, who finished with 83 yards on 20 carries, has been getting the ball a lot, but has also been taking a lot of hits. Coaches said that instead of running out of bounds — like last year — Ferguson has been getting smaller but positive yard gains.

    Until coaches find a balance for keeping Ferguson in longer, Vaughn will have to play more, according to Cubit.

    “We trust him,” Cubit said. “He’s earned that true … In order for us to get through, Ke’Shawn has got to be a player for us.”

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