When the two first met, the first thing Illinois’ new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said to Donovonn Young startled the Illini running back.
“He asked me why am I not good,” Young remembered.
Not good? But Young was Illinois’ leading rusher last season, gaining 598 yards on 4.4 yards per carry with three touchdowns. His 38 catches actually led the team.
It was a seemingly bold and brash move for Cubit to challenge his starting running back, but Cubit’s an old-school coach, and it’s his style to be as straightforward with players as possible. He almost certainly knew about all of Young’s accolades, but he remembered coming into Memorial Stadium as the head coach of Western Michigan in 2011, when Young ran right past him and his defense.
As a freshman, Young ended that game with a total of 100 yards on 12 carries and a touchdown.
“You just want to challenge these kids,” Cubit said. “They’re here because they’re Big Ten football players, and I think sometimes if you want to play down to the level where you think you are or somebody told you you were, then that’s what you’re going to do. ... I think kids got to understand that there are people behind him, and I’m behind him.”
Young has taken that as a challenge and, at least for one night, did his best to prove Cubit wrong when he ran for 86 yards on 19 carries with three touchdowns during Friday’s Orange and Blue Spring Game.
“I feel like I strive off stuff like that,” Young said. “When you doubt me, I feel like I come back stronger than before.”
If Friday’s combined 87 passing attempts between the two teams is any indication, Illinois is going to throw the ball a lot this season; however, a lot of the early talk has been about how Young could be poised for his best season under Cubit.
Young was never a huge fan of the spread offense and thought he could be better utilized in a different system. Last season was filled with uncreative handoffs to Young that forced him to sweep to the outside of the field, where he seemingly never gained any more than two yards and his runs usually resulted in negative yardage. The read-option run that made up for nearly all of Illinois’ rushing offense will be reduced, if not eliminated. Cubit plans to take advantage of Young’s ability as a north-south runner.
Cubit has also spent time with Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith, so Cubit wants to teach Young some of the things he’s learned from him.
One thing head coach Tim Beckman always brings up when he raves about his new offensive coordinator is how he is able to get the best out of his talent.
“I think it’s friendly,” Beckman said. “When I say friendly, I mean player friendly. Our players understand what they’re responsible for doing.”
Beckman said he was impressed as he stood behind the offenses Friday, especially on Young’s third touchdown run, a 3-yard run up the middle where Young was able to fight off a tackle from a linebacker. Beckman wants the Illini to be more physical next season, and after Young scored, Beckman pulled Young to the side to commend him.
“He’s not anywhere near where he’s going to be in September,” Cubit said. “We’re going to get him better, even still, I think now he tastes it.”
Jamal can be reached at email@example.com and @JamalCollier.