Illinois living Zook's ideal with stable of backs
Ron Zook says he has always preferred to give the ball to a bunch of backs over a single, talented ball carrier.
So far this year, the No. 24 Illini have done just that, riding three tailbacks - Jason Ford, Troy Pollard and Donovonn Young - and the legs of sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase on their way to a 4-0 start.
''I think you have to use your bench, you have to keep guys as fresh as you can keep them,'' Zook said Tuesday as the Illini prepared to open Big Ten play at home Saturday against Northwestern. ''It's a grind. We've got eight games (left). You're going to have some guys get nicked up probably.''
Zook's best Illini teams - and his only two bowl teams - have been anchored by big-time backs who handled most of the carries.
Rashard Mendenhall set an Illinois single-season rushing record in 2007 with 1,681 yards on the way to the Rose Bowl. Mikel Leshoure broke that record last year with 1,697 yards, helping carry Illinois to the Texas Bowl.
Ford, a senior, was the most likely heir to Leshoure's tailback spot and remains at the top of the depth chart.
But the 6-foot, 235-pound Ford has found the going slow so far. He's averaging 15 carries a game and has 215 yards (53.8 a game). He carried the ball just eight times last Saturday in a 23-20 win over Western Michigan, and his best work has come bulling his way for 2, 3 or 4 yards at a time between the tackles, particularly late in the win over Arizona State.
''If things get rolling for (Ford),'' Zook said, ''then he'll be the guy to stay in there.''
Scheelhaase, who offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said before the season could rush for a thousand yards this fall, has just 224 so far or 56 per game.
Zook says he isn't concerned about Ford. While Pollard and Young both made big plays last Saturday, Zook attributed Ford's lack of similar production to circumstances - a smart play call or an open hole that his understudies were lucky enough to be on the field for.
''It's kind of the way it's worked out,'' the coach said, adding that he expects Ford to eventually pile up to more yards in the style of physical backs like Jerome Bettis - late in games on defenses tired of tackling the big back.
So far, what Ford and Scheelhaase haven't provided, the Illini have found from Pollard and Young.
Pollard is a 5-foot-8, 190-pound fifth-year senior who never had a 100-yard game before this fall. Now he has two, including 133 yards against Western Michigan that made him the team's leading rusher with 260 yards on 25 carries.
''We all bring something different to the table,'' Pollard said. ''Coach has a good way of feeling out the game, who best fits each situation. He felt like last game I better fit the situation, so I got more playing time.''
Zook downplays any reluctance to lean on Pollard based on his size, but if one back does emerge at Illinois it might be Young.
The freshman from Houston had 100 yards against Western Michigan in Pollard's shadow and has 212 on 27 carries (7.9 a carry) for the season. Against the Broncos, he scored on a 14-yard option pitch from Scheelhaase, and ran away from most of the defense on a 59-yard sprint.
Zook, in spite of his preference for a committee of backs, isn't ruling out one rising above the rest at some point.
''If somebody does stand up and take over, then fine,'' he said.