The last two Illini to be drafted in the first round were Kevin Hardy and Simeon Rice, who were taken second and third, respectively, in 1996.
"I am very happy with the selection," said Mendenhall. "I think it is a good situation for me. I am just ready to get in there and show them what I can do to contribute to this offense. I will go out there soon and sit down with the coaches and learn more about how I fit into their scheme."
Mendenhall finished his Illini career holding seven school records, including the single-season rushing mark with his 1,681 yards last season. Named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and Chicago Tribune Silver Football Award winner, Mendenhall played a huge role in Illinois' run to the 2008 Rose Bowl. He posted eight 100-yard rushing games and averaged 6.4 yards per carry, both school records.
He ranked eighth in the NCAA in rushing and second in the Big Ten with 129.3 yards per game. His 6.4 yards per carry ranked second among running back, nationally, and first in the conference. He was a semifinalist for both the Doak Walker and Maxwell Awards.
"I am thrilled for Rashard," said head coach Ron Zook. "I have said this many times, but I feel that all of Rashard's football is in front of him. He has so much upside and I have no doubt he will be a huge success in Pittsburgh. I have a great affection for the Steeler organization from my time there as an assistant coach. They do everything first-class. I think the Steelers got not only a great player in Rashard, but a great person as well."