Illini's Ferguson hopes to follow LMJ's path

When most freshman football players are asked to list their favorite athletes for the team's media guide, they typically give two responses.

1. Current NFL players

2. Former NFL players

Illinois running back Josh Ferguson ventured slightly outside the box with his choice. He picked another college player -- at the time, at least -- in Oregon's LaMichael James. Although James since has moved onto the NFL, his accomplishments in Eugene, the dazzling runs and the Doak Walker Award in 2010 as the nation's top back, left an impression on Ferguson.

James' success resonated even more because of his size (he's listed at 5-foot-9, 195 pounds).

"He embraced his size," Ferguson told ESPN.com. "He did great, starting as a freshman and all the way through to his junior year. He's a positive guy. Definitely a role model for me."

Ferguson has a similar frame to James -- 5-foot-10, 185 pounds -- and like the former Oregon star, his best trait is undoubtedly his speed. After a hamstring injury cut short his freshman season and forced him to redshirt, Ferguson is primed for a much bigger role in a revamped Illinois offense in 2012.

The Illini lack experience and depth at running back in Tim Beckman's first season -- they have no juniors or seniors on the roster -- and plan to lean heavily on Ferguson and sophomore Donovonn Young, who rushed for 451 yards and six touchdowns last season. Ferguson, who played in Illinois' first three games last fall before the hamstring issue shut him down, generated buzz throughout spring practice and capped the session with a big performance in Illinois' spring game (130 rush yards on 20 carries).

"It felt great," Ferguson said. "Words can't describe how great it felt. It had been almost a year since I'd played football, so it was awesome to be back out there again. It laid the foundation going into the summer, and made me look forward to getting back out there again."

After a stretch that admittedly taxed him both mentally and physically, Ferguson looks forward to contributing in Illinois' new spread offense. His speed complements Young's power, and both men figure to get plenty of touches.

"It's a great opportunity," Ferguson said.

Ferguson picked Illinois ahead of Air Force and several FBS programs from smaller conferences. He said his size only hurt him with one school during the recruiting process -- Northwestern, a team that also runs the spread and, ironically, has brought in several smaller backs in recent years.

Beckman has gone to great lengths to promote the Northwestern rivalry among his players. He won't have to worry about motivating Ferguson.

His larger inspiration, however, comes from watching a player like James, who rushed for 5,082 yards and 90 touchdowns in his three-year career at Oregon.

"It tells you that you can do anything you want to do," he said. "It's always good to see a guy ahead of you do it."