Mikel Leshoure gained 734 yards on 108 carries in 2009 for an impressive 6.8 yard average. He added 177 yards in 14 pass receptions. Despite being the leading rusher on the team, he still split time with three teammates. Illinois fans are glad to see him gain over 100 yards in each of his first three games in 2010.
Leshoure is now considered one of the Illini stars, but he had a few bumps in the road getting there. He held himself back his first two years with occasional behavior incompatible with team needs. He was suspended for two separate games, and a teammate broke his jaw but was not punished, an indication of who might have been to blame for the incident.
In other words, Leshoure had some growing up to do. He has made a transformation since the end of last season. Head coach Ron Zook explains.
"The thing for me about Mikel is to see how he's maturing. Anybody can see his athleticism and all that. But he's accepted responsibility for things. Those are the things as a coach that make me feel good, to watch them grow up and become men and handle their responsibilities.
"Responsibility for his actions, responsibility for being where he's supposed to be when he's supposed to be there, and all the things he's supposed to do. Leadership with the team, things like that."
Zook estimated when the transformation began.
"Probably after last year. He began to show signs of maturing this summer. He had a great summer with a good work ethic. He got himself in great shape conditioning-wise, body-wise and strength-wise. Everybody matures at a different rate."
Running back coach DeAndre Smith has seen marked improvement since his arrival last winter.
"I think it all started when I first got the job, just sitting down with the group as a whole and talking about expectations. There were things I saw on film, that if they did these things it would help them become better football players. It just continued throughout the spring and fall camp, and fortunately we're seeing the results of that.
"I always knew he had great talent. A lot of my friends coach in the Big 10, and one thing I heard was that Illinois had some big-time running backs."
There was plenty of competition at running back, which always encourages the cream to rise to the top. It also helped that no one anointed him as the feature back without earning it. Smith refused to treat him any differently than his teammates.
"I wouldn't dare say that, it wouldn't be fair. I knew Jason Ford was a great running back in his own right. And once I got here I got the chance to know Troy Pollard and was pretty excited about him. And I knew a little bit about Bud Golden from recruiting him at another school. At the time I had Justin Green, and he had great potential as well. He had to earn it."
Leshoure looked improved during the spring, but at one point he begged out of a scrimmage complaining of a sore ankle. Illinois coaches weren't convinced of his veracity and said so. But at Camp Rantoul and since, Leshoure has continued to practice daily despite minor injuries.
"He's not doing that. Right now he's nursing some things, bumps and bruises from playing in the games. But he's out here, he's not missing. That comes with the maturity level. He's starting to realize you're not gonna feel great any more. You have to push through it because the team needs to see you out there."
The 6'-0", 225 pounder began to realize his actions affected the whole team. For him to be a team leader, he had to set a good example.
"It is something that he bought into," Smith says. "Understanding he needs to be a leader, understanding that if he was the guy he had to carry this football team. I said that to all the guys. If you want to be that guy, you have to show it in practice every day."
While Leshoure has learned humility, he did admit he has made a concerted effort to change his behavior on and off the field.
"The coaches talked to me about wanting me to have a bigger role and being able to help the team out. To do that, I need to be more mature off the field, take responsibility for my actions. Just do the basic things I'm supposed to do in order to be successful on the field.
"I'm working harder. Working harder in the weight room, doing what I need to do in the classroom. Coach always says the person you are off the field is the person you are on the field. I've made an effort to do better in my classes and work harder, and it's just carried onto the field."
Has he seen a carryover between his maturation process and his play on the field?
"I definitely feel that's true."
The Champaign Centennial product wants to be the feature back, and he's finally evolving into the player he has dreamed of becoming.
"I definitely think this is something that I wanted and worked for. I put in a lot of work in the off season to be the go-to guy. I'm finally getting a chance to do so. It's really out of your hands. It's a coach's decision. All you can do is work hard and show them you can be a playmaker out on the field."
As a former star running back himself, Smith speaks from personal experience. He sets extremely high goals for his running backs, knowing they can't reach ultimate goals if they don't shoot for them. He believes Leshoure has tremendous potential for continued improvement.
"The sky's the limit. He has so much room to grow. There's things he needs to work on to be a complete back such as pass protection.
"I always talk to him about being spectacular. He's doing things that good running backs do. We want to see spectacular things. That's what we're trying to gradually get to. Making somebody miss, break a tackle, score on a long run. We need big yardage from him, and that's what we're trying to get."
The Illini need a dominant rushing attack, and ideally they'd like a feature back to do much of that work. Whether it is Leshoure or someone else, Smith is looking for the consistently outstanding effort.
"We need a hundred yard rusher, at least. I look more at effective runs, five yards a carry. If we get five yards per carry every time we run the football, then we have a real good chance to win. They're gonna touch it approximately 30 times overall."
Leshoure is an intelligent, well-spoken young man, with the emphasis on young. He has made mistakes, but he's making progress to overcome them. As a sign of his good heart, he and his mom have helped out the less fortunate in the community by handing out hams and turkeys at Thanksgiving. That will continue.
"Yeah, we'll definitely do that again this year. I haven't really talked to the people who helped me out with that, but we definitely plan on it."
He and his mom also invite Illini players to their home for a Thanksgiving meal.
"A lot of guys aren't from here, so they can't go home to see their parents or have a home cooked meal. So I invite some of the guys over."
Smith recognizes another value in sharing with his teammates.
"I think it's tremendously important from the standpoint of building team unity between a running back, offensive line, even quarterback. I think him bringing those guys in, him being from this area and trying to give back...sometimes it takes kids longer to figure it out.
"He's starting to figure out the effect he can have in this community. It's great to see. It just shows he isn't just a great football player, he's a great kid as well."
Leshoure was overlooked by many in his recruitment. But Zook wasn't about to risk losing him to a competitor.
"Obviously he's a talented guy, he's from right here in town. You'd end up playing against him if you didn't get him. I'm glad he's here."
The next two Illini opponents are Ohio State and Penn State, two of the Big 10 leaders in defense. Smith says Leshoure has played against talented defenses already this season, but it will mean even more if he can repeat his success in the conference.
"Those were good teams we played before, and they have great defenses. They understood going in they had to stop our running game. Those guys were giving their best effort. In Big 10 play, we need him to continue to do that. If he continues to do that, then we have a great chance to win."