Football Season Preview: The Running Backs

The Fighting Illini football team is blessed with some excellent running backs this year, and Coach Zook has expressed a desire to involve them more in the offense. Illinisports discusses the running back and fullback positions in this third in a series on Illini football.

August 21: The Offensive Line
August 22: The Wide Receivers

August 23: Running Backs
August 24: Quarterbacks
August 25: The Defensive Line

The Illini football team is blessed with some excellent running backs, and Coach Zook is expected to take advantage of that fact this season. With an improved offensive line opening holes, the running game can become an important compliment to the passing game.

The Illini will not be changing to a power running game since they want a diversified attack that requires significant passing as well as running. And the lack of depth at tight end further prevents this approach. But Illini coaches feel their running backs deserve more carries than last year.

Leading the way are returning seniors Pierre Thomas and EB Halsey. With a wealth of experience behind them, Pierre and EB are leaders who set an important example of hard work and self sacrifice for their younger brethren. And they have skills that give hope for success in both the running and passing games.

Pierre Thomas has the unique ability to punish defenders and gain extra yards after contact, and this makes him a fan favorite. Blessed with average speed, Pierre uses powerful legs strengthened by pushing cars around as a high schooler to break tackles and drag defenders. And he is also a competent receiver out of the backfield. He puts the "Fight" into "Fighting Illini", and the fans appreciate his efforts.

Pierre is not the most durable back and has had some injuries in the past, a likely product of his never-give-up running style. He has gained strength and size during his years at Illinois, but it is doubtful he can average 25-30 carries a game as some wish because his bruises accumulate through a long 12 game season. Coach Zook and running back coach Reggie Mitchell will likely give him plenty of rest to save him for important points in the game. They can afford to do this because they have some running back depth.

EB Halsey is one of the best leaders the Illini have had in many years. Teammates respect him and listen to him. And he is one of the most versatile of Illini, so he can be utilized in a variety of ways. He is a shifty runner who also gives everything he has to his effort. And he is outstanding as a receiver. Punt return and kickoff return responsibilities have also been thrust upon him in the past since he is consistent and reliable. EB's only drawback is a lack of breakaway speed, but all teams would benefit from having someone of EB's quality on their side.

The most highly touted running back is sophomore Rashard Mendenhall, a high school All-American. Rashard is a 210 pounder with outstanding speed and some shiftiness. His play was limited last year due to inconsistency in blocking, occasional lapses holding onto the ball, and a hesitancy when faced with plowing into the center of the line. Rashard was accustomed to breaking his runs to the outside where he could outrun defenders like in high school, so it has taken him some time to become an inside runner needed to balance and limit defensive coverages.

But if fall practices to date are any indication, Rashard Mendenhall appears ready to compete for significant playing time and could eventually be a feature back in a wide open, high scoring offense. He is now bursting through small holes rather than dancing around, so offensive linemen don't have to sustain their blocks as long. And once he is past the line, his talent in the open field is exciting and dangerous. Rashard can give opponents headaches far beyond their comfort level when he is playing his best. He may still need to defer to one or both seniors for playing time this year, but regardless he is an important part of the Illini's future success.

Rashard's older brother Walter Mendenhall and junior Charles Bailey are also competing at running back. Walter was recruited as a running back, was tried at linebacker last fall and moved back to fullback and then running back in the spring. He had an excellent spring game, giving the Illini hope for additional quality depth. Possessing more size but less speed and elusiveness than his brother, Walter may not receive as much playing time. Still, he has assets that can be of help to the team, on special teams if nothing else.

A novice to running back is Charles Bailey. "Champ" was a defensive back originally but was moved to receiver in the spring to find a better place for his track-level speed. When both Pierre Thomas and Walter Mendenhall had to sit with minor injuries prior to the first scrimmage at Rantoul high school this fall, Bailey was called upon to provide some depth at running back. With limited knowledge of his new role, Charles excited the fans with several excellent runs.

Bailey is not built for inside running, and he may also struggle in pass protection. But he follows blockers well and has a burst one cannot teach. He will likely not pass Pierre, EB, and Rashard on the depth chart, but he does show the potential to provide depth in case of injuries, and perhaps he can learn the position well enough to help even more next year. At the least, he may get some opportunity as a kick returner where his speed can be an asset.

Complimenting the running backs are some decent fullbacks. Used primarily as blockers and pass receivers, Illini fullbacks still play an important role. This year especially, since the Illini are so slim at tight end, a fullback will be needed to provide extra blocking on both running and pass plays. And the person making the biggest impression in this regard is Russ Weil.

Weil is powerfully built and packs a wallop when leading running backs through the hole. He appears to be the best blocker the Illini have had at the position in several years. A former wrestling star, Weil is aggressive and strong. He also has decent straight-ahead speed, as shown in his long pass reception and run for TD in the second major fall scrimmage. Weil may go unheralded, but he may just be the extra element the Illini need to get over the hump offensively.

Providing competition for Weil is redshirt freshman Sam Porter, a converted linebacker. Sam has a fullback's body, and he has good speed for the position. He is still learning the system, but Sam also packs a punch as a blocker. He will get time on special teams in addition to backing up Weil. Walkons Justin Ijei, Nick Levanti, and Mike Mucha are also competing at the position. Walter Mendenhall can also be used here.

Running back is one of the strongest positions on the Illini team, and more emphasis will be placed on running the ball because of this. Ironically, as good as the position is, Illini coaches are looking not only to replace Thomas and Halsey through recruiting but to upgrade the position. They are looking for a large, strong, fast back who can power for extra yards and break tackles (someone like Thomas only bigger, stronger and faster) and another smaller one who is fast enough and shifty enough to break long gainers on any possession. In other words, they want the best recruits possible.

It is believed the Illini running back and fullback positions are in good hands this year. And given Coach Zook's recruiting prowess, it will likely be even better in the future.

Go Illini!!!


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