Mikel Leshoure had a breakout season. The junior running back from Champaign earned Big 10 and national honors by churning out 1559 yards on 252 carries, a 6 yard per rush average, plus 175 yards on 15 pass receptions. He scored 17 touchdowns, 14 on the ground.
After two seasons where immaturity and lack of conditioning produced inconsistent results, Leshoure put everything together through hard work as a junior according to head coach Ron Zook.
"I don't think anyone has ever questioned whether Mikel was a talented guy or not. I look at how far Mikel has come from the offseason and the winter program. There were a lot of times at our 6 a.m. (practices) where he was the guy that pushed the team to compete.
"He had a great spring and a great summer. (Strength and Conditioning coach) Lou (Hernandez) couldn't say enough about the way he worked and his work ethic. It's not just a thing where he turned a switch on. He worked hard to get here.
"I just found out that he was a two-star (recruit). That's why I don't really get into those star (ratings). He's pretty good for a two-star (recruit)."
Running back coach DeAndre Smith says there was no doubt all summer and fall that Leshoure would get the bulk of carries in the Illinois offense.
"He couldn't have had a better season. Coming in with everything new, new coach, new offense, I thought he handled it really well. I thought he gave us the best chance to win all year. He proved to be what we thought he could be."
For his part, Leshoure remains humble. Named consensus first team All-Big 10 and second team All-American by one rating service, Leshoure gave credit to the entire offense including the offensive line and receivers whose blocks opened holes for him. He appreciates his good fortune.
"Yeah, I'm thankful for all that. I appreciate the votes and everything that went into it."
His defining moment came in the Northwestern game at Wrigley Field where he rambled for 330 yards to break the all-time Illini single game rushing record. He says he simply benefitted from favorable circumstances.
"People might think I was more fired up for that game because of the stats. But I'm like that every game."
He gained 142 yards and 1 touchdown in the finale at Fresno State, but the wet and slippery turf prevented him from getting good traction.
"Yeah, the field was pretty slick out there, it was pretty wet. You really didn't have good traction. You just had to endure it. There was nothing we could do about it. It was definitely a tough loss, just like the ones before. But it's part of the game, and you've just got to take it and move on."
What is more amazing about Leshoure's exploits is other teams stationed 8 or 9 defenders near the line of scrimmage and focused on stopping him.
"Teams are gonna stack the box and keep us from going, but we've just got to keep playing. I started seeing defenses coming down more and playing in the box to stop me around the third or fourth game of the season."
They never did consistently, thanks to multiple formations, creative play-calling, and efficient blocking by his teammates. But even if they had stopped him, Leshoure sees the bigger picture. The team is more important than the individual.
"If other teams wish to think that, that's fine with me. We have a good team and a good offensive line. We can go out and have somebody else make plays. If other teams wish to think that, fine, but we can show them that we are more than just me."
Besides the individual honors, the 6'-1", 230 pounder is happy he and his teammates can share a bowl experience. He was a high school senior when the Illini went to the Rose Bowl.
"It's my first one, so it definitely feels good to be there. It feels good to be part of the game. I'm excited and looking forward to the atmosphere of playing on a big stage. All the hard work has paid off. We want a chance to go out there and show the world what we can do."
Illinois worked hard to have a winning season. To get there, it must defeat a talented Baylor team or risk ending up 6-7 on the season. Leshoure echoes his teammates when discussing the importance of the Texas Bowl.
"We definitely have something to prove. That's all we're worried about right now is getting this win."
Most of the offense is underclassmen. So the Texas Bowl is not an ending but a stepping stone for better things to come.
"We've just got to keep coming out working, that's the number one thing. As long as we work at getting better and competing at practice, I think we'll be all right.
"There's a lot of young talent, and it looks bright for the future. Offensively, we've got a lot of people coming back. We're not losing too many seniors. It's something to look forward to. There's a lot of work to be put in, but I think it will be good next year."
Of course, that group of returnees may not include Leshoure. He is contemplating turning pro before his senior season. He's not ready to discuss it, but it remains a viable possibility.
"I'm not really thinking about that. I'm just trying to focus on this game. That all lies ahead, but I can't really think about that stuff right now."
Leshoure tended to run straight up and shuffle his feet in high school, leading some to assume he was mediocre at best. But Smith helped him improve his running style. That and great conditioning brought out a more refined product.
"One of the things we worked on was his pad level, getting a good lean. He's really worked on his feet, his quickness has been much improved. He's three years removed from high school, and he's gotten better. He's worked at it, he's bought into what we're trying to do. His quickness is great, his vision's been really good, and he has great acceleration."
While Smith hopes Leshoure will return, he admits his star has a number of traits NFL scouts seek.
"He's a smart, intelligent kid. Plus he's big and he's fast, and he's been very productive. He's stayed fairly healthy. He holds onto the football, his knowledge of the game, his ability to pass protect, all those things those guys like to see with backs coming out."
Leshoure needs 123 yards against Baylor to become the all-time Illinois single season rushing leader, topping Rashard Mendenhall. Whether he gets there or not, Illlini fans are advised to enjoy him while they can. He appears destined to have a lengthy career after college.