Newcomer Dufrene Came Into His Own

The Fighting Illini had a dominant rushing attack this year, led by All-American Rashard Mendenhall and quality backups Daniel Dufrene and Troy Pollard. With Mendenhall considering turning pro and Pollard recovering from knee surgery, Dufrene may get first shot at the starting running back position in spring ball.

The sophomore from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, arrived on campus this fall after a stint at College of the Sequoias in California. Without benefit of spring ball to learn the system, Dufrene still picked things up quickly enough to enter the 2007 season as second string.

The Missouri game saw him gain 58 yards in just six carries, and Daniel backed that up with 51 yards and a touchdown in nine carries against Western Illinois. Unfortunately, injuries then set him back for awhile.

"I sprained both of my ankles," explains Dufrene. "It took at least 3-4 weeks (to get back). I needed to get my speed back. I didn't have the burst I needed. But I'm fine now."

Daniel played in every game, but he simply couldn't operate at peak efficiency. In the meantime, freshman Troy Pollard began to impress with his jitterbug style, giving Dufrene even fewer carries. It wasn't until the Wisconsin game that Illini fans were reminded of the real Dufrene as he rambled for 24 yards in just three carries.

He showed further promise with 21 yards and a touchdown in two carries against Michigan, and he continued to spell Mendenhall effectively from then on. But it wasn't until the Ohio State game that Dufrene drew major attention for his ability as he rambled for 108 yards in eight carries at Columbus. His 80 yard burst from the fullback slot surprised tOSU and set up the Illini for an important early touchdown. Time really slowed down for him on that play.

"I was just thinking get to the endzone as quick as I can. Yes, I was the fullback in a two-back set."

He realizes USC will be ready for that play in the Rose Bowl. But he may not realize the Trojans also respect his overall ability. For the year, Daniel rushed for 294 yards, averaging 6.4 yards per carry. He also caught three passes for nine yards. Not bad for a superstar's substitute with two bad ankles.

"My year went pretty good. I think it worked out pretty well. I expected a lot out of me for this year, and next year. I expected to come in and play a lot, and that's what I got. The opportunities I got, I did something with it."

Besides adjusting to the speed of the game and the size of the players, Dufrene had to learn much about pass receiving and pass blocking.

"Probably pass blocking and learning the passing scheme, picking up blocks. I never was a back who caught passes, so that was difficult for me. This is my first time in an offense doing a lot of passing, so it was pretty hard at first. I improved during the season."

Daniel is aware of Mendenhall's situation and is prepared should Rashard decide to turn pro early.

"I hope he comes back. He's a great player, and I enjoy playing with him. But if he does leave, I know I'll have to step up and be the man for next year. I'll need to put on more weight and strength during the spring so I'll be ready to handle it. And I want to work on the passing game, catching passes."

Daniel spent two years in California, so he's looking forward to returning for the Rose Bowl.

"It's a thrill. This is my first time playing in it, and I know the atmosphere is going to be crazy."

Is he nervous or concerned about getting too psyched prematurely, given the long wait?

"I don't think so. We're just excited to be there and play. We've been waiting for awhile now. The coaches take care of us."

The Rose Bowl is a tremendous opportunity for the Illini, but Daniel says they have long-term goals that go far beyond this one experience.

"Next year we want to get better."

With that goal in mind and a year of major college football under his belt, Dufrene will undoubtedly be a better back in the future. If so, the Illini will be better also.

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