B1G 40: Can Josh Ferguson prove potent weapon for Illini?

B1G 40: Can Josh Ferguson prove potent weapon for Illini?
July 7, 2014, 11:00 am
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Vinnie Duber

B1G 40

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As the dog days of summer arrive, the longing for football becomes all the more intense. Well, we here at CSNChicago.com are here to provide you with a summertime football fix. Over 40 days, CSN's Vinnie Duber will have 40 posts pondering the biggest questions heading into the 2014 Big Ten football season — the B1G 40 questions. Be sure to check out the entire B1G 40 series at csnchicago.com/big-ten.

Can Josh Ferguson prove a potent offensive weapon for the Illini?

Well, he kind of already has.

Of course, 2014 is a different season from 2013, and so that’s why we wonder if Ferguson can turn the flashes of brilliance he displayed a season ago into a dependable, multi-faceted, workhorse running back this year.

[B1G 40: Will Spartans' Connor Cook emerge as an elite QB?]

He’ll need to be dependable because of what the Illini have lost since the end of the last campaign. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who accounted for more offensive yards than any player in the Big Ten, has moved on, meaning the first new starter under center for the Illini for the first time in four years. Plus, Illinois saw a mass exodus of playmakers at the wide receiver position. It all means that despite last year’s success of a retooled offense that pulled a complete 180 under new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, many of those players are gone. So it’s up to Ferguson to be Mr. Reliable.

And there’s a lot leading observers to believe that the Joliet Catholic product can do just that. He carried the ball 141 times for 779 yards and seven touchdowns, and he caught 50 passes for 535 yards and four more touchdowns. Altogether, that’s 1,314 yards and 11 touchdowns, which makes Ferguson a great and versatile weapon out of the backfield. He averaged 4.2 catches a game last season, which ranked ninth in the Big Ten, and his 1,351 all-purpose yards (rushing and receiving plus return yards) also ranked ninth in the conference.

To go further into the numbers, of the nine returning players who were featured, starting running backs for Big Ten teams a season ago (not including Maryland and Rutgers), Ferguson had by far the most receptions. His 50 catches dwarfed the totals of some of the Big Ten’s most prolific backs. Iowa’s Mark Weisman had five receptions. Penn State’s Zach Zwinak had three. Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon — a 2014 Heisman candidate — had one. So while the rushing numbers alone favor the rest, the total offensive numbers put Ferguson in the mix to be one of the conference’s more productive backs.

[MORE BIG TEN: Illini add second Texas wide receiver recruit of weekend]

“He’s about as important, really, as anybody on the football team,” Cubit said this spring. “He’s kind of a wide receiver in the backfield at times, and then you can move him around, get him on mismatches. He’s really done a great job in the run game. He just causes matchup problems. And for a guy like that, you just feel real good about dumping the ball down to him or getting him on the move on a linebacker. And teaching our quarterbacks how to best utilize Josh and his individual routes … is huge.”

Between all the new faces on the Illini offense and everything that Ferguson can do, the junior figures to play a massive role this season. And if he can build on what he did last season, he could become one of the conference’s best offensive weapons.