Rashard Mendenhall: His Time Has Come

Dynamic running back Rashard Mendenhall, now the Illinois starter, had a great spring before a foot injury just before the Orange and Blue Game. But with prospects set for a full recovery before Camp Rantoul, the speedy back could be set for a breakout junior year. Which many have expected since the day he signed on the dotted line.

Mendenhall has been waiting his turn, patiently backing up steady but unspectacular classmates Pierre Thomas and EB Halsey for two years. There have been moments – flashes of the greatness so many expected – but they have come only in spots.

That could all change this year.

"He has all the tools," Coach Ron Zook said. "And he knows that. Rashard knows what he can be. Now is the time to be that guy."

Rashard was everybody's All-American during his high school days at Niles West. He was the highest rated running back recruit to attend Illinois in recent memory. He has flashed both speed and maneuverability while at Illinois, but a fumble problem and the presence of Thomas and Halsey relegated him to a backup role up to now.

Despite the reduced playing time, Mendenhall has already gained 858 yards in 126 carries, an average of 6.8 yards per carry, and he has caught 25 balls in his career for an additional 246 yards. Last year, he finished 10th in the Big Ten in rushing yards and led the league with 8.2 yards per carry. Rashard's 86-yard touchdown gallop against Northwestern was the fourth longest touchdown run in Illini history. And his 76-yard pass reception for touchdown was the 11th longest pass play ever recorded by an Illini.

Rashard has two more years to play, and he intends to make the most of them. He is working hard to improve his inside running game and eliminate turnovers so he can be the feature back. If this spring is any indication, Mendenhall could be ready for a breakout season. <

"I definitely miss Pierre and EB," he said. "They're close friends. I try to call them and hang out with them sometimes. Pierre is still around. I miss them, but it's nice to be the man though. It never stops when it comes to competition being tough across the country, so that's my biggest motivation."

Does your previous experience give you the confidence you need to excel this year?

"Yes, definitely. You can't buy experience. Just being out there, even behind guys like EB and Pierre, just learning the ropes, I now come out here confident and ready to go."

Of course, there are also a few bad memories that also suffice to motivate, such as the time speedy Penn State cornerback Justin King caught Rashard from behind.

"Yeah, I still hear that at least twice a week."

He agreed that King is a burner, but he also looked back several times to see who was gaining on him, and that may have slowed him up. So what did he do differently on his long run at Northwestern?

"I just concentrated on getting into the end zone."

Fast running backs often prefer to run outside so they can outrun their opponents to the end zone, especially in high school where their speed is clearly superior. But Rashard now realizes the value of a power running game.

"Yes, definitely. When I first got here my vision was just trying to outrun people. But in college everybody is athletic, everybody has good speed so you have to learn to adjust your running style to this game."

Rashard seems to be adjusting well as he has shown major improvement in his power running, although he doesn't credit this to any technique changes.

"Not really, just confidence you know. I always felt comfortable outside, but now I've put on a little more weight and can power with those guys. I now weigh 225 (another Body by Lou)."

Mendenhall has seen his playing time limited in the past by a propensity to hold the ball out away from his body where he can be fumble prone. But the Illini coaches are working hard to help him acclimate to holding the ball "high and tight" against his body to protect it better.

"Ever since I was little I never had the ball inside. It was always swinging loose. But it's very dangerous at this level. So they've been trying to concentrate on me keeping the ball up tight to my body. I am more conscious of it now and doing better as a result."

Mendenhall, as a pass catcher, has very good hands.

"Definitely. I caught a lot of balls in high school. I led my team in receiving I think all three years. So I'm used to catching the ball. I like catching the ball."

Blocking is another facet of the game Rashard is working to improve. What is the hardest block for a running back?

"Running backs don't do much run blocking. It's pass blocking mostly. It is especially hard to catch a bull rush. It's hard to stop your feet and stop the other guy's momentum when you are at a dead standstill. We work on that a lot with our linebackers. Since we have our backs to the quarterback, we try to get a good set, see if they have a high hat or low hat so we will know how to set our feet."

Right now, the backup running back is Rashard's brother Walter. Zook is bringing in three more running backs in the fall to provide more depth and talent at the position. What does Rashard think of the increased competition?

"We've got some great guys coming. Daniel Dufrene is already here, and guys like Deries Hodge and Troy Pollard are coming in the fall. But experience is a big factor. Those guys will come in and have to adjust to the game. The better the players we have out on the field, the better we will be as a team."

The entire mood of the team these days seems upbeat and positive. How much has this changed for the better since Rashard's arrival on campus two years ago?

"We have some really great guys, you know. Competition at every level. Offensively, everyone understands the schemes a lot more. Two years ago we were all learning the plays. Now we understand the game better so there are not as many missed assignments. The next step is winning games."

This improved confidence has led to bowl talk.

"Definitely, we're right there. You never know until the first fall Saturday comes, but we're miles ahead of last year. Now we've got guys just concentrating fundamentally on what we have to do for the fall. More playmakers and more speed gives the offense greater diversity and more trouble for opposing defenses."

Rashard Mendenhall is majoring in Recreation Sports Consumerism and has an interest in community recreation. His mom is a youth minister, so he wants to do something along those lines after college (and hopefully a long pro career). Barring unforseen injuries, Rashard appears to have two great seasons ahead of him, and his long-term future is favorable as well.

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