Josh Ferguson's skill set makes him perfect fit in modern NFL offense
In today’s NFL, they’re everywhere. You can find them scattered on the rosters of playoff teams.
Giovani Bernard is making a living playing football, as is Ronnie Hillman. When Dion Lewis went down, the New England Patriots moved along with former Wisconsin running back James White. That doesn’t include the likes of Danny Woodhead and Theo Riddick, both of whom finished with 80-plus catches in 2015.
In your parents’ NFL, all of those tailbacks would’ve been deemed too small to crack a rotation. If backs weren’t built to handle the rock 25 times per game, they likely had to be an elite special teams player just to keep a roster spot. But in the pass-heavy NFL offenses of 2016, there’s a market for the pass-catching tailback.
And that’s the way Josh Ferguson likes it.
“Just seeing the way the game’s changed, it’s awesome,” he said. “I think I can help a team in the exact same way.”
The Illinois tailback is hoping to show NFL scouts this week in Indianapolis that he can become the next diamond-in-the-rough all-purpose back.
At 5-9, 198 pounds, Ferguson built his game on versatility. He destroyed Illinois’ record for receptions by a running back (168) and he had more catches than any tailback in the country in the last four years. Just for good measure, Ferguson had over 2,500 career rushing yards and 18 touchdowns.
For those who watched him cut his way through B1G defenses, it wasn’t a surprise when he did the same in the East-West Shrine Game. He led the East squad in rushing and racked up four catches out of the backfield. The in-game exposure certainly boosted his draft stock, but the experience leading up to the all-star game was also greatly beneficial.
Ferguson’s running backs coach for the game was none other than former Purdue great Mike Alstott. At 6-1, 250 pounds, he and Ferguson didn’t exactly share the same style on the field.
But they did have something in common.
“He’s a legend at my high school,” Ferguson said. “I grew up hearing about him a lot. Having that opportunity was no short of awesome.”
The Joliet Catholic Academy (IL) products had plenty to talk about during their time in Florida together. Besides connecting about their old stomping grounds, Ferguson made sure to listen closely to the six-time Pro Bowler.
“The biggest thing I got from (Alstott) was being a student of the game first,” Ferguson said. “On the field, he just preached to work hard and put your best foot forward, especially at a time like this.”
Ferguson is no stranger to maximizing his opportunities.
At Joliet Catholic, he was part of a three-headed rushing attack that would rival any Power Five backfield. Not one, not two, but three future Division I backs had to share touches.
Two of them were younger than Ferguson, who was a star in his own right. Ty Isaac was a five-star recruit who earned USA Today All-USA high school football team honors as a junior. He later enrolled at USC but transferred to Michigan. Malin Jones, the youngest of the dynamic trio, went on to rush for over 4,000 yards and he racked up 57 touchdowns in his historic high school career. The former Northwestern tailback transferred to Louisville.
As a senior leading one of the top high school backfields in the country, Ferguson accepted his reality.
“Our carries weren’t going to be in the high 20s or 30s or 40s,” said Ferguson, who still earned Chicago Tribune first-team All-State honors. “It really taught me and the other backs how to maximize your 15-18 touches and do your job outside of that. Going to Illinois and being under (Bill) Cubit — a guy who loves to spread the ball around and create mismatches — it was not a hard transition at all.”
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No matter who Ferguson had to share a backfield with at Illinois, his production remained steady. Whether it was Donovonn Young, dual-threat quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase — who was Ferguson’s RBs coach in 2015 — or most recently Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Illinois always had another option out of the backfield.
Still, Ferguson entered his final season as one of three running backs in the country with 1,500 career rushing yards and 1,000 passing yards. Before his shoulder injury, he was on pace to break the school’s career all-purpose yards mark.
It didn’t bother Ferguson that he never got 25 carries in a game or that he never became a true feature back. He made his presence felt anyway.
“It’s really shaped my game,” Ferguson said. “It’s really forced me to get to know a little bit of everything as an offensive player. I love it. I absolutely love it.”
Ferguson spent the last couple months refining those skills at the Bommarito Performance Systems in Miami. Daily sessions started around 6:30-7 a.m. and lasted until approximately 3:30-4 p.m. During that time, Ferguson trained for all the physical and mental aspects of the combine.
He watched film on similar backs like Bernard, Hillman and White, in addition to preparing for his interviews with scouts and front offices. Ferguson is well aware that scouts think he can’t operate between the tackles and that he can’t play for the majority of snaps. That’s why many have him slotted as a possible fourth- or fifth-round pick.
But Ferguson’s focus in Indianapolis is on the things that are within his control.
“I go down there, run well, catch balls, show my speed, have good interviews and be solid in all aspects, I think I’ll put myself in a great position,” he said.
To do that, Ferguson said he’s aiming for a 40-yard dash time between 4.3 and 4.4 seconds. That would put him on the list for one of the B1G’s 10 best times in combine history, none of which came from a running back.
Ferguson knows a little bit about combine history. He was — and still is — one of its obsessive consumers, watching shuttle drills and reading draft profiles. Admittedly, he still can’t believe that he gets to have a profile.
Fittingly, his NFL.com profile reads “Ferguson isn’t the biggest back in the draft class, but his explosiveness and elusiveness are perfect for teams looking for a dual threat in the backfield.”
And that’s the way Ferguson would like it.