Josh Ferguson

Josh Ferguson runs as Washington linebacker Princeton Fuimaono dives after him. (Anthony Souffle / Chicago Tribune / September 14, 2013)

Josh Ferguson has gone from a player shadowed by skepticism to one carrying heavy expectations in Champaign.

Either way, the Illinois running back appreciates the fuel for his drive.

"I have a big year ahead of me and I have to prove people wrong," he said. "Being a smaller back, there's always a (stereotype) you have to face. It gives me motivation to work a little harder."

Ferguson is already setting the bar for the offense as one of the lone staples of stability as preseason camp began this week at Memorial Stadium. With three quarterbacks competing to take the reins from the graduated Nathan Scheelhaase and a crop of new receivers, the junior from Joliet Catholic represents one area the coaches aren't staying up nights fretting over.

Ferguson proved to be one of the most dangerous dual threats in the Big Ten last season, rushing for 779 yards on 141 carries with seven touchdowns and catching 50 passes for 535 yards and four touchdowns. He ranked second among FBS running backs with 44.6 receiving yards per game.

With the departure of receiver Steve Hull, Ferguson is the Illini's top returning player in receiving yards. Receivers Spencer Harris and Ryan Lankford also graduated.

"I just want to be consistent," Ferguson said. "That was a big focus of mine this offseason. For us to do what we want to do, I have to bring that."

Ferguson's surge in confidence is notable since he arrived in Champaign in 2011. He suffered a hamstring injury after three games and received a medical hardship waiver to redshirt. The next season, he started six games and showed flashes of promise.

"I'm older, more experienced," Ferguson said. "The game has slowed down a lot. I'm a lot more comfortable. I had a lot of snaps last year and I got in the end zone a few times. Those things breed confidence. I just want to spread it among the young guys and the rest of the team."

Ferguson plans to outdo his 2013 production, but he's not willing to detail his lofty goals.

"It's a secret," he said. "I have some personal goals, but the main goal is to do the best I can for the team."

His team goals are just as sky-high for the Illini, who went 4-8 and 1-7 in the Big Ten last season.

"I just want to pave my own way and help my team to a Big Ten championship," Ferguson said. "I'm feeling great, and I would say the team does too. There's a positive vibe among the team."

sryan@tribune.com

Twitter @sryantribune