Can Illini Land The Next Mendenhall - Harper?

If you watch his running style, Jamie Harper even looks a bit like Rashard Mendenhall. Very big, but very fast. Slashing, changing directions, lowering the pads at times, making people miss others. The strength to run through tackles with the speed to finish the run. Now the question is this? Can the Illini finish the job with this fabulously explosive back from Northeast Florida?

Harper is a genuinely good and respectful young player. Complimentary of those recruiting him as well as of those around him. So it was no surprise when Kedric Prince from our site contacted him in mid-October, that Harper had glowing praise for the Illini.

"Oh man, I like what they're doing at Illinois," Harper told Kedric at the time. "I have a great relationship with Assistant Coach Dan Disch - he's a Florida guy, and I really like Coach Zook. I'm so mad at myself because they were trying to get me up there for the Wisconsin-Illinois game and I missed it.

"I really like what they're doing up there. I know a lot of the guys on the team and I've played against some of them. I love the way they play. They didn't worry about what Wisconsin was ranked, they just came out and played them and looked good doing it. He's a great coach and a great recruiter. He's proven to people he knows what he's doing.

"The guys he recruited and coached at Florida won a national title and now look at what he's doing with Illinois. ... Illinois just has things going in the right direction and they look like they're having fun winning."

Now, to be fair, those comments were made in the middle of the season, not recently. I don't want to misrepresent that. Yet, from all I'm hearing from those here in Jacksonville, those sentiments haven't changed a bit. Harper is most intrigued with Illinois.

Jamie visiting Illinois back in December, bringing with him a high school teammate. It was cold and dreary at the time, but it didn't deter Harper a bit from telling people what an awesome visit it was.

He remains excited about Clemson, generally believed to be his leader for awhile now. And there always will be a place in his heart for Florida, the school he rooted for and grew up watching from an hour or so away.

But getting on the field at either of those places could take awhile. Clemson recently learned that superback James Davis will return to school instead of opting for the NFL draft and will reunite with C.J. Spiller, another great back with whom he forms the nation's best one-two punch.

Florida didn't have great tailback play last year, but the Gators are buzzing about transfer Emmanuel Moody, the former USC Trojan who sat out his transfer year and apparently has been lighting it up in practice. The Gators also return heralded recruit Mon Williams from injury, making many believe incumbent starter Kestahn Moore will fight just to be third team.

But at Illinois, the job is open. Daniel Dufrene and Troy Pollard are tough, smaller backs but lack Mendenhall's size or physicality. Everyone else competing for the job will be a true freshman, just like Harper. So there is no better time than now to be trying to win the job.

Sources at Trinity Christian High School in Jacksonville tell me that Clemson remains the leader, but that Illinois has made up significant ground and is very close. Those two clearly lead the pack.

"He kept up with the Illini very closely during the season," the source told me. "He was very aware of what Mendenhall was doing and seemed very sure that Mendenhall would come out and that if he did, he (Harper) would have a chance to win the job right out of the gate."

Last week, Harper and his family spent time with recruiter Dan Disch, who he sees as often as rules will allow, plus running backs coach Reggie Mitchell, who flew in just to meet Harper, to discuss expecations with running backs, etc. This coming week, Disch will bring in Mike Locksley to explain to Harper the details of the offense, expectations of him and what his specific role will be next year.

Finally, Ron Zook will meet with Harper one time before Jamie makes his decision on Jan. 24, two days before signing day.

Sending in your heavy hitters is nothing unusual. FSU's Bobby Bowden came to Jacksonville to to visit with Jamie last week and Clemson's Tommy Bowden already has been, as have other head coaches. But can any of those make the impact in the living room we all know Ron Zook can make? And will make.

Who knows that answer? With it holds the key to signing one of the best power backs to come along in a long, long time.

"He really likes Disch and Zook and all of those guys," the source said. "It will be interesting to see what happens when Zook comes in."

Interesting indeed. Stay tuned.

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