DeAndre Smith had to be pleased with his running back situation when hired last winter. He had Mikel Leshoure, who ended up setting a new Illinois single season rushing record with 1697 yards. Both Jason Ford and Troy Pollard added quality depth to the mix. And redshirt freshman Bud Golden showed future promise.
The Illini had 15 extra practices in preparation for the Texas Bowl, and Smith says the running backs who will contend this spring to replace Leshoure all benefitted.
"Having those extra bowl practices was so beneficial, for Jason Ford in particular. With what ended up happening with Mikel, he ended up benefitting the most. He had a great bowl practice. He got better as we went through the whole process.
"Of course Troy Pollard got more reps, and he got better as well. And for Bud Golden, it was like an extra spring practice. He was able to get better. We got a chance to work with him some more.
"Right now, with not having Mikel, I have a lot more confidence in those guys. Jason Ford has been a leader for us, and Troy and Bud will be able to play for us next season."
Ford will be entering his senior year. Last season, he accumulated 480 yards rushing on 99 carries and scored 7 touchdowns. He also caught 7 passes for 52 yards and threw a short touchdown pass. Seeing what Leshoure accomplished by getting into top shape, Smith says Ford is highly motivated to have a great final season.
"Absolutely. We've talked about it but not too much as it's pretty evident what he has in front of him. There are goals he wants to accomplish, and he has responded that way.
"His weight is going down, he's been working hard in the weight room, he's been doing a lot of extra things we like to see him do. And academically he's better, so he's feeling good about himself on the football field and in the classroom. When you do that, you've got a chance to be pretty good.
"Before you knew it, it was his senior year. So whatever has happened in the past, this is it, what he has in front of him right now. I think the thing that's interesting in terms of last year, not knowing whether Mikel was coming out or not, he's now sitting in a spot where he can make some special things happen.
"You don't have to think about two years from now, three years from now. It's just right in front of him right now. He's been taking a one-day-at-a-time approach, and he's working for it."
Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino utilizes a diversified attack, but the passing game depends on a strong running game. The system is ideally suited for Illini runners.
"This offense is built for guys like Ford and Mikel and Bud Golden. Those guys can come downhill, they're good zone runners. And they've been able to do some spread stuff and been effective that way. The offense is built for a guy like Jason Ford."
Pollard is not as big as the other backs, and he doesn't have blazing speed. But Smith feels there is a place in the Illini attack for the senior Floridian.
"I wouldn't say he has that top-end speed that some smaller guys have. But he's definitely quick. I never honestly thought I would limit him to run inside or outside. He's a kid that can do both.
"The best part of his game is he's smart. I feel confident in him. He can go, he can pass protect and do what he needs to do that way. He can get a tough yard if we need it.
"I remember in the Missouri game, we just kind of threw him out there when Mikel's shoe came off. He ran and got a first down. This is kind of what he's been able to do for us. He'll have a bigger role next season."
Pollard has had to wait his turn. He was playing an increased role as a true freshman in 2007 before knee surgery set him back for a couple years. Even last year, Leshoure and Ford got most of the carries.
Still, Pollard carried 24 times for 109 yards, caught one pass and had the best kick return average on the team with 22.9 on 16 tries. Smith looked for ways of giving him playing time.
"It was hard for him. We tried to look at a different approach on how he was helping the football team. Kickoff returns, getting a couple runs here and there. I always try to find ways for him to get a couple plays. When it was all said and done, he would have over 60-70 yards on playing on offense, kickoff returns, things like that."
The 200 pound Golden gained 32 yards in 8 carries plus a 12 yard pass reception in a mop-up role in 2010. He is not as big and powerful as Leshoure and Ford, and he's not real fast. But Smith feels there is a place for him.
"He's a downhill kind of physical guy. He doesn't do a lot of shaking and baking, and he's gonna make you tackle him. He's a physical runner, not really that top-end speed. But he's fast enough, and he's tough."
In part two of this interview, Smith describes his two incoming freshman running backs Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young. And he shares his thoughts on rookie defensive tackle Clint Tucker, whom he personally recruited out of East St. Louis.