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College football: Illini's Ferguson finding a rhythm

Illinois  running back Josh Ferguson catches a pass for a touchdown Sept. 7 against Cincinnati in Champaign.
Illinois running back Josh Ferguson catches a pass for a touchdown Sept. 7 against Cincinnati in Champaign.

CHAMPAIGN – As a jazz tenor saxophonist with a flair for improvisation, Illinois tailback Josh Ferguson learned how best to express his creativity within a structure.

You listen for the chord changes, you listen to what your bandmates are playing around you, what kind of tone they are setting as you wait for your time to blow. Then you let loose.

As a running back, Ferguson does much of the same. You eye the defense, you read what your teammates are doing around you, how they are setting you up as you wait for your time to strike. Then you let loose.

There is no way to divorce that creativity from Ferguson’s game, even if he doesn’t always trumpet his musical background. He grew up in Naperville a precocious and introspective kid, according to his father, Collin. Multiple teammates describe him as shy, and many didn’t know they had a bona fide jazzman in their midst.

“Some know, guys I used to live with, but I haven’t really talked about it,” Ferguson said.

His teammates are getting to know him now. The redshirt sophomore from Joliet Catholic is earning more responsibility in the offense and has started to come out of his shell. For instance, he is the hype man on the sideline before each game, leading the Illini through a pregame chant.

“I didn’t play too much [as a freshman], so I didn’t want to say too much,” Ferguson said. “I’m a low-key person. I live by myself. But now I’m taking more of a leadership role. I’m playing more. And I’ve always felt that if you’re not playing, you shouldn’t be talking too much.”

His play is doing plenty of talking. Ferguson’s creativity has helped inspire the artist in offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, who will design a few plays per game specifically for Ferguson.

Paired with Donovonn Young in the backfield, Ferguson has given new meaning to the term scatback. He is averaging 5.7 yards per carry while rushing for 125 yards, complemented by 185 receiving yards and two touchdown catches.

“He’s one of the big game-breakers that we have,” Cubit said.

With football and class responsibilities taking
a lot of his time now, Ferguson only occasionally jams on his sax, but the music always will be in him.

“The way he runs, if you think about it … it’s very smooth and electric,” Collin Ferguson said. “There could be a correlation to his music. You never know what beats might be going on in his head.”

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