The Curse of the Illinois Starting Running Back

Someone in Champaign should check whether Memorial Stadium is built on an ancient Illiniwek burial ground, because becoming the Illinois starting running back is a career-killing curse.

For the last five seasons, a bizarre pattern has emerged that claimed three victims and may well claim its fourth this year. When a promising Illinois running back seizes the starting job, he’s overtaken by a younger, less experienced player who outperforms the starter from a backup role. And when that backup ascends to the #1 spot, he is overtaken by his backup. The numbers are downright eerie…

2012 (Tim Beckman takes over)

Donovonn Young (SO): 571 yards, 3 TDs


Donovonn Young (JR): 376 yards, 3 TDs
Josh Ferguson (SO): 779 yards, 7 TDs


Josh Ferguson (JR): 735 yards, 8 TDs

2015 (Bill Cubit takes over)

Josh Ferguson (SR): 708 yards, 3 TDs
Ke’Shawn Vaughn (FR): 723 yards, 6 TDs

2016 (Lovie Smith takes over)

Ke’Shawn Vaughn (SO): 301 yards, 3 TDs
Kendrick Foster (SO): 720 yards, 7 TDs

Let’s begin with the tragic case of Donovonn Young. From the Chicago Tribune in 2014:

“The running back from Houston remembers having the sacred No. 5 jersey bestowed upon him. He remembers former coach Ron Zook telling him after one freshman year practice that he was going to be the next great Illini back.”

In 2012, Young recorded fine stats for an ignominious Illinois team. He seemed primed for a productive, workmanlike career. But along came young Josh Ferguson, a versatile do-it-all back who dazzled Beckman. Ferguson took Young’s job, and Donovonn was relegated to the human-interest portion of the Tribune sports page. What ensued is the only exception to the curse. Ferguson held onto his job unchallenged in 2014. He enjoyed a successful season carrying and catching the ball. The curse subsided, but didn’t die.

When Bill Cubit took over the team the next year, Ferguson fell victim to the mystical power that elevated him in the first place. Young Ke’Shawn Vaughn outrushed Ferguson and doubled his touchdown output. The makings of a stellar four-year career? Maybe in Iowa. Vaughn’s sophomore season was marked by injury and an apparent incompatibility with Lovie. When asked midseason what he needed to see differently from Vaughn, Lovie coldly responded, “Better play.” Sounds like a man possessed.

Meanwhile, the shorty from Peoria, Kendrick Foster, jumped his teammate on the depth chart and put Vaughn’s stats to shame in his first real season contributing. Now Ke’Shawn’s in Nashville running for the ‘Dores, and Foster’s sittin’ pretty atop the depth chart preseason.

The curse, like most of Illinois’ problems, could simply be the nature of a coaching carousel and total lack of stability. There’s a strong correlation there. But there’s also a strong correlation to Illinois’ brutal appropriation and bastardization of Native American iconography and then having shitty football teams. The only thing we know for certain is that Kendrick Foster ought to watch his back with a talented up-and-comer like Reggie Corbin holding down the #2 spot. Illini beware.


Image via MGoBlog / CC BY-NC 2.0