Running Backs Coach Mitchell Likes His Backs

Rashard Mendenhall was a special running back for Illinois last fall, and he is expected to be a high NFL draft pick. Running back coach Reggie Mitchell appreciated the rare opportunity to work with a special player, but now his task is to find adequate replacements for the departed star.

"Rashard had a great career," reminds Mitchell. "As a true freshman, he was kind of like Mikel LeShoure. He had to kind of feel his way through it. He made some big plays for us as a freshman.

"And then as a sophomore he started to establish himself. And then as a junior he had a great year. I was talking to Coach Zook about this today. There's probably two Rashards walking around college campuses right now. You look at the kid at Arkansas and Rashard. You don't get a chance to coach guys like that very often."

There is no Rashard clone on campus at present, so Mitchell must develop what he has available to him. For this spring, junior Daniel Dufrene and the freshman LeShoure are his main candidates at running back. He may use a committee approach.

"It's a work in progress. One day Mikel will do something really good, and the next day Daniel will do something good. So we're just trying to find the combination."

A third candidate is Troy Pollard, who flashed excellent quickness and moves in brief action last fall as a freshman before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Pollard is sufficiently recovered to participate in non-contact individual running back drills the last week of spring practice.

"Today (Tuesday) is the first day he's gone through individuals, so I think he's right on track. He's been pushing himself, so he's looking good. The timetable is for him to be ready when we start in Rantoul."

With the graduation of fullback Russ Weil, the fullback spot is also a work in progress. Rahkeem Smith was moved there to back up Weil last fall, and he has shown potential.

"Absolutely. He works at it. And we're going to work Darius Purcell there some. So I think we'll be fine there."

Unfortunately, Smith sprained the arch of his foot, preventing him from participating in the last major scrimmages. This has forced the Illini offense to work without a fullback as a lead blocker. Since Mendenhall frequently credited Weil for much of his running success last fall, this reduces Illini flexibility.

"We can't get some of the personnel groupings we like to get into," explains Mitchell. "I think it has some effect, but not alot. Instead of working the fullbacks, we get to work the tight ends as receivers.

"When you want to get into the "I" formation, the fullback is very important. And Russ was that type of guy. We're just waiting, and we'll get it oiled up in the fall."

Purcell was expected to be a fullback this spring, but he has demonstrated sufficient running skills to work some at running back, a position he prefers.

"Everybody likes running back, you've got the ball in your hand. Nobody wants to block. I think from where he's at, not having played running back, he's doing a great job. He has a good motor, he runs hard.

"He doesn't always go where he needs to be, but he's giving us a great effort. He thinks he can catch it pretty good. He does a good job of catching the ball."

Doubling as recruiting coordinator, Coach Mitchell confirms the need to recruit a big, bruising fullback who can take pride in opening holes for others and catching a few passes without needing personal glory. Such a player is hard to find.

"We're trying to find one, but that's a different guy because everybody wants to carry the ball."

Coach Mitchell will have some idea who deserves the most playing time after the final scrimmage this spring. But he will make sure Pollard and fall enrollee Jason Ford get opportunities as well.

"Yeah, I think we'll have a good idea what we're doing. But when we get Troy Pollard back and Jason Ford, you want both those guys to have the opportunity to play also. We'll kind of have a depth chart established, but those guys will also have an opportunity to prove themselves."

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