Mendenhall's Time to Shine is Now

A year ago, Illinois running back Rashard Mendenhall led all Big Ten rushers with a per-carry average of 8.2 yards. His total of 640 yards on 78 rushing attempts resulted in a 53.3 yards per game mark, good for tenth place among all league rushers. Not bad for his first real taste of what Big Ten football is like.

But that was 2006 and now the junior running back wants to put up even bigger numbers.

"Last year was definitely a learning experience," said the Skokie (Niles West) native. You can see the progress we've made since coach Zook came here. Everybody knows the offense so much better, the timing is better, guys understand the concept. You can definitely see the changes that we're making."

The Illinois running game was a bright spot for the team in 2006. Behind the 1-2 punch that included Pierre Thomas (62.9 yards per game), the Illini posted a team mark of 188.8 yards per game on the ground to lead the Big Ten in that category. Thomas and Mendenhall were the only two players from the same team ranked among the league's top 10 rushers.

With Thomas gone, Mendenhall takes over as the team's top ground threat, a challenge he's ready to accept.

"It's looking like I'll be the No. 1 back and that's what I've got my mind set on," he said. "I'm ready for that, but I know I have a lot of hard work ahead of me to make sure I'm ready to go up to Rantoul [where the team holds training camp each year] and make sure I'm ready for that first game with Missouri."

Mendenhall has worked hard to get to this spot. Coming out of high school he was the No. 1 recruit in the state of Illinois by Scout.com, and was the No. 17 rated player among national recruits by the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

He saw action in 10 games at running back as a freshman, carrying 48 times for 218 yards. He improved those marks considerably as a sophomore, including a 161-yard game against Penn State and a 113-yard performance in the season finale against Northwestern. He had the team's top two long runs of the year with an 86-yarder against the Wildcats and a 79-yard scoring run versus the Nittany Lions.

"Rashard is the most experienced running back we have in our program," Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Locksley said. "He's made a tremendous number of plays for us the last couple of years. He's a big play threat every time he touches the ball. That's what our expectation level is for him to be the guy.

Like all good backs, Mendenhall is ready to give credit to the five big guys up front, the guys that open the holes for him to run through.

"We've got a lot of good linemen up front," he said. "All those guys came back in great shape and will do a good job for us this year. And with [quarterback] Juice [Williams] in there, it's going to be a pretty good offense."

Mendenhall, who's older brother, Walter, will again serve in a back-up running back role again this year, feels the veteran offense – returning nine starters from a year ago – will be improved enough to help turn some of last year's losses into W's this year.

"We were so close to pulling out a bunch of those games that could have gone either way," he said. "I think our experience that's back this year will turn some of those losses into wins.

"The running game was good last year and it will be better this season. We take a lot of pride in the fact that we were ranked so high last year. But our entire offense will be better. Juice is back and as dangerous as ever, we've got good receivers and all of the line is back. I just think everything points to us having a big year."

Another top ten individual finish in the rushing department by Mendenhall will help assure that big year.

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