Tight end Davis outshines featured backs in running game

Anyone following the Illinois football team would have agreed before Saturday’s matchup against Western Michigan that the departure of senior running backs Jason Ford and Troy Pollard after 2011 left many questions for Illinois’ backfield in 2012. Still, few would have expected sophomore tight end Jon Davis to be the Illini’s leading rusher after their “season-opening win against Western Michigan”:https://www.dailyillini.com/article/2012/09/illini-topple-broncos-in-first-win-of-beckman-era.

Davis pulled his weight Saturday while featured backs Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young floundered. Davis amassed 54 yards on just six carries, including a 17-yard run that proved to be the longest of the game. Throughout the game, he lined up in the backfield, at tight end and as a wideout.

“Well, I’ve never kicked before,” Davis joked when asked about his versatility. “Honestly, last week I didn’t know how many carries I’d get. I go in, I know the game plan and I just go from there.”

Head coach Tim Beckman awarded Davis the Offensive MVP of the Western Michigan game, which means he will be a captain against Arizona State — calling the coin toss for an Illini team with no true captains. Beckman acknowledged that as a defensive-minded coach, if he had to face the Illini, he would be concerned about where Davis is on every play.

Co-offensive coordinator Billy Gonzales added that Davis’ size adds an element that Ferguson and Young do not have.

“(He’s) a 240-pound guy carrying the rock,” Gonzales said. “That adds another dimension to your game. We’ve got a couple of quick guys, not to say that Josh and D-Y aren’t strong, but you’ve got a bigger guy (in Davis).”

Ferguson and Young could not get anything going against Western Michigan. Young especially looked less than stellar. He netted just two yards on 11 carries. Ferguson had 38 yards on the same number of touches. Young, however, did contribute 24 receiving yards on six catches.

Neither running back was consistent from the backfield. Ferguson had the longest run of the two, going for 12 yards in the first quarter. He said the production from himself and Young was simply not good enough. Young characterized his play on Saturday as “lackluster.”

Despite the poor numbers against the Broncos, Beckman said he thought the running backs were “outstanding” Saturday. He said the offensive line is what needs to improve.

“We’ve got to come off the ball and we’ve got to make things happen up front,” Beckman said. “This game’s still very simple to me. You’ve got to win on the line of scrimmage and we’ve got to do a better job with that so that we can utilize our rushing attack better.”

Only five players entered the game on the offensive line against Western Michigan. Beckman and offensive line coach Luke Butkus are still tinkering with the line and expect to play more than five players against Arizona State.

“Nathan Scheelhaase’s injury”:https://www.dailyillini.com/article/2012/09/illini-quarterback-scheelhaases-injury-status-unknown-for-arizona-state throws in another potential wrench for the Illinois rushing attack.

Scheelhaase has played a large role in the Illinois ground game since he became the starter two years ago. With the possibility that he may not play against Arizona State because of the ankle injury he sustained against Western Michigan, there is added pressure on the running backs to carry the load.

“It definitely changes things for us, but we don’t see it as too much of a hassle or a setback,” Young said. “We just see it as a road bump. I feel like this week a lot of the offense is going to depend on the running game. And I feel like me and Josh are ready for it.”

Last year, Arizona State held the Illinois rushing attack to 105 yards on 45 attempts and forced two fumbles. Scheelhaase was the leading rusher for the Illini in that game, contributing 67 yards.

Whether Davis gets as many carries as he did Saturday is not something the Illini will decide before the game. Gonzales said the coaching staff would stick with whatever is working against the Sun Devils.

“It depends on what we’re doing,” he said. “It’s a chess game. We’ve got to put our best chess pieces on the board so we can get those matchups.”

Gonzales also expects Dami Ayoola to get some touches from the backfield in Tempe, Ariz. Ayoola, a 5-foot-10 true freshman from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., did not get any carries in the opener.

Whether it’s Ayoola, Ferguson, Young, Davis or Scheelhaase, the running game will have to pick up the slack for a passing attack that netted only 133 yards. If Davis plays like he did Saturday, expect him to continue to get carries from the backfield. Just don’t expect him to start kicking anytime soon.

_Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @sean_hammond._