Illinois freshman running back Donovonn Young never thought he'd be playing college football so far from his home in suburban Houston. Neither did his father. Cartrell Young can't wait to grab that stack of business cards from college recruiters who were taking a look at his son before the season opener his junior season at Katy (Texas) High School. Those recruiters backed off when Young broke his foot, then never called again despite Young's 2,332 yards and 36 touchdowns last season while leading Katy to a 13-1 record and the regional finals.
CHAMPAIGN -- Illinois freshman running back Donovonn Young never thought he'd be playing college football so far from his home in suburban Houston. Neither did his father.
Cartrell Young can't wait to grab that stack of business cards from college recruiters who were taking a look at his son before the season opener his junior season at Katy (Texas) High School. Those recruiters backed off when Young broke his foot, then never called again despite Young's 2,332 yards and 36 touchdowns last season while leading Katy to a 13-1 record and the regional finals, where Katy lost before a crowd of 41,000 at Rice Stadium.
If you think Young has an I-told-you-so chip on his shoulder heading into the season, that's only the half of it.
"As soon as the season starts, I'm going to start calling,'' said Cartrell Young.
Although coach Ron Zook warned everyone to wait a few weeks before mentioning the Heisman Trophy and Young in the same sentence, one thing was apparent at Camp Rantoul. The Illini found a keeper in Young, an explosive 6-foot, 215-pounder who took the bulk of the carries behind starter Jason Ford during the final scrimmage Saturday.
When the open against Arkansas State on Sept. 3 (2:30 p.m., BTN), check out No. 5. Some sideline observers at training camp predicted Young would lead the Illini in rushing.
His father can't wait -- and won't miss a game -- even though his son went far from home. Cartrell Young planned to drive to every game this season from Houston. He said it's about a 12-hour drive (that math doesn't add up) to Champaign and a group of 40 family members will ride a charter bus to town for the game against Michigan.
"It's not a big deal,'' he said. "It's just a hop and a skip for me. I'm a truck driver by trade.''
Young wasn't hidden in a small out-of-the-way outpost. Katy is a big-time program with an 11,000-seat stadium that's sold out for nearly every home game. But his only college scholarship offers were from Illinois and North Texas, Cartrell Young said. Illinois didn't get into the picture until late in Young's senior season.
Running backs coach DeAndre Smith came up with the name, perhaps because the Illini knew Mikel Leshoure was headed to the NFL draft. Smith made the call to Cartrell late one night, when Cartrell answered, "Who the heck is this?'' Illinois sounded good, but it was a long trip from Houston.
"He was like, 'I don't know. That's a long ways away from here. You aren't going to be able to come to the games,' '' Cartrell said. "I told him to don't worry about it. He wanted me to move up here. I said I'm not moving. I'm fine right where I'm at.''
Young transferred to Katy before his junior year to play for coach Gary Joseph, just like his father did. Despite the recruiting cold shoulder, there are no skeletons in the closet, Joseph said.
"The kid is very driven to be successful,'' Joseph said. "He was a National Honor Society student here. He's got a good head on his shoulders. People question his speed. He was never caught from behind. When you average 9.9 yards per carry, you're breaking some long runs. He is driven to prove people wrong.''
Said Donovonn: "The reason I wanted to come here is they believed in me more than I believed in myself.''
His father is another believer, and he won't miss a game. Or a chance to say, I told you so.
BASKETBALL: The Illini jetted back to the U.S. on Saturday to end the 10-day exhibition tour through Italy, but coach Bruce Weber stayed behind for two more days to visit the Austrian village where his father was born.
"I've never had a chance to go there,'' Weber said. "You never know in life what will happen. It's a chance to go see his town.''
Weber left Italy for Vienna, then continued to the small town near the Hungarian border.
"For me, it's a bucket list thing,'' Weber said. "I was fortunate. My dad and grandma left there. It's given me these opportunities in the United States and Illinois.''
Weber returned home Monday.
IN OTHER NEWS: Football fan appreciation day is Saturday from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at Memorial Stadium. Admission and parking are free. After watching the Illini's gameday dress rehearsal, players are available for photos and autographs. … Defensive backs Alan Ball, Vontae Davis, Kelvin Hayden, Kevin Mitchell and Eugene Wilson were named to Illinois' all-decade football team. … The Big Ten named midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo offensive player of the week in soccer after she tallied two goals apiece in a pair of 5-1 wins over Gonzaga and Toledo. In the season opener against Gonzaga, DiBernardo scored the Illini's first two goals. Illinois (2-0) plays at Ball State on Friday and Louisville on Sunday. … Senior gymnast Paul Ruggeri was named to the U.S. national team and will compete in the Pan-Am Games on Oct. 24-29 in Guadalajara, Mexico. He qualified for the team through his performance at the Visa championships over the weekend. Illini teammate C.J. Maestas had already qualified for the team and will also compete in the Pan-Am Games. … The Illini women's volleyball team was picked to finish in a tie for second with Nebraska behind league favorite Penn State in the conference coaches poll. The Illini open the season at BYU on Friday.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie.