Illini Ground Game Among Nation's Best

The Fighting Illini football team led the Big Ten in rushing yardage, averaging 65 yards per game more than their closest competitor. And they were the first team in school history to gain over 3000 yards in a single season. A big reason for their success was the outstanding play of Big Ten MVP and All-American Rashard Mendenhall.

Rashard is mulling over whether to stay in school for his senior season or move on to the National Football League. While he prepares for the Rose Bowl, Illini coaches have sought to limit his outside distractions by marking him offlimits for media interviews. He will make an informed decision sometime after he faces off with USC.

In the meantime, there is no one better to discuss Rashard's ability and career than his position coach Reggie Mitchell. Reggie has been with Rashard since he matriculated to Illinois from Niles West High School and has worked closely with him to develop his natural gifts. He says Rashard is focusing on the Rose Bowl and is not letting thoughts of his future interfere.

"I talked with him today, and I think he's the best he's been. He's excited about playing USC. He's wanted the NFL. Every kid who ever played football, that's the thing they want to do. And that's a goal of his. If he continues to do well, he can probably accomplish that goal."

Illini coaches hope Rashard will be available to them next year, but they also realize his leaving early could be a positive for the Illini. Both will benefit either way.

"Yeah, it does (help Illinois), because it says we are recruiting guys to our program who have the ability to leave early. It's a win-win for him, and it's a win-win for us."

Rashard had his doubters entering spring ball, but he worked hard to improve. Coach Mitchell recognizes some of the factors that aided Mendenhall's growth process.

"Number one, Rashard knew he was going to be the guy. So the focus was a little different for him. He worked hard in the weight room and in Lou's (Hernandez's) summer program. And then in the season, he did what he needed to do. Every week he got better.

"He gained some weight and got stronger. I think with him, the more he got the ball, the better he got as the season went on. He kind of knew that it was his position, so if he failed he was still going to be in there to work through some things."

The Illini needed Rashard to provide some inside power to compliment his electric outside bursts. Getting stronger aided that process.

"As a coach, you want to see a player improve. All the credit goes to him because he set his mind that he's going to be the type of running back that we wanted him to be, and that meant changing his style a little bit. Like running more between the tackles. When you're 220 pounds, you have to take pride in being able to do that. So I couldn't be more proud of him."

One flaw Rashard had upon joining the Illini was a tendency to dance and weave at the line of scrimmage, which slowed his momentum and reduced his effectiveness. But those same quick feet and moves are perhaps his best asset once he powers past the line of scrimmage.

"He's got probably the best feet I've seen. When he got into the secondary, I think the thing he bought into, here's a guy who's 220 pounds, and secondary guys don't want to tackle him. You make them tackle you, and then in the second half you're going to have some big runs."

Coach Mitchell was also happy with the play of backups Daniel Dufrene and Troy Pollard. So if Rashard does turn pro, the cupboard isn't bare.

"Daniel Dufrene is a guy who has a great upside. The more he gets the ball, the better he'll be. Troy Pollard showed some flashes (before his injury). So I think with both of those guys, we have some guys with the ability to be bigtime football players. And Walter Mendenhall is coming back, so he's going to have some opportunities. It's just a matter of seeing which guy can survive the spring. With the freshmen we have coming in, whichever guy comes out on top, we're going to be fine."

Some had concerns about depth in the Illini backfield, especially when Pollard went down with his season-ending knee surgery. But Mitchell was unconcerned.

"I thought our depth was right where we needed it to be because we were able to play all the guys. What happens if you have a bunch of guys, the ones not playing get disgruntled. It affects your meeting room. I felt Rashard was right where we needed him to be, and for a change of pace we could put Troy Pollard or Daniel Dufrene in. I think it worked out really well for us."

Dufrene and Pollard are not power backs, so Rashard's power and strength will be missed once he departs. But Mitchell is optimistic this problem can be resolved. He can't talk about specific recruits, but his two present recruiting commitments are both in the 220 pound range.

"Troy and Daniel are not as big stature-wise, so that's why we went out and we're trying to recruit some bigger guys. If Rashard should happen to go to the NFL, those guys know they'll have an opportunity to come in and compete to replace our best player."

The Illini don't want to lose a great running back like Rashard prematurely, but they want what's best for him. They also know the key to consistent success at the college level is recruiting players of comparable ability to Rashard.

Whenever Rashard Mendenhall turns pro, he will be missed. He has given Illini fans memories that will last a lifetime.

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