Dufrene, Pollard Ready to Run

There is no question asked more often of Ron Zook than this one: How in the world do you replace Rashard Mendenhall, whose breakout junior season led Illinois to its first Rose Bowl appearance in 24 years? The answer is pretty simple. It won't be easy.

"I think everyone understands that," Zook said. "Rashard was such a big part of our season last year, in so many ways, that it will take more than one guy to replace him. But we have some backs that we feel pretty good about. That is the good thing."

That, of course, starts with Mendenhall's primary backup -- junior Daniel Dufrene -- who got the lion's share of the running back carries Mendenhall didn't. It also includes Troy Pollard, who was injured early in his true freshman year but was emerging as a special third back, probably someone who would have challenged Dufrene for backup status.

Overall, neither are Mendenhall. Rashard was 225 pounds and one of the fastest players on the team. Dufrene will play around 210, Pollard 190. Dufrene is not quite as fast as Mendenhall and a shade faster than Pollard.

There is an interesting statistic in play, though, with all three backs. Yes, Mendenhall had far more yards than anyone, 1,681 compared to just 294 for Dufrene and 148 for Pollard. That is a big workload to replace.

But here are some interesting numbers: Mendenhall averaged a spectacular 6.4 yards per carry. Interestingly, so did Pollard -- exactly 6.4 per carry. Dufrene? He was at 6.3 yards per carry, meaning almost all three ran for the exact same amount per attempt.

Now that is much tougher to do over the course of 262 carries, like Mendenhall had, compared to 47 for Dufrene and 23 for Pollard. But the point is the talent is there.

"We feel good about both of those guys," Zook said. "Daniel is a real tough, stick it up in there guy. Runs very hard and is very fast. Troy, man I love watching Troy run. I call him Bucket of Hair. Really like the kid. And he is going to be such a good player."

And whoever the running back is, the Illini are giving him the ball.

"We'll be able to run the ball because of how we play," offensive coordinator Mike Locksley said. "Our system will always be conducive to running the ball."

The truth is Dufrene is very good at exploding through a hole, getting to it quickly, getting his pads down and going. Pollard, though, is the back with the great vision. He runs much like the the NFL's all-time leading rusher, Emmitt Smith, seeming to glide for a split second, waiting just an instant for the right hole, then bursting through it. Vision and balance are his keys.

After those two, true freshmen Mikel LeShoure, who attended spring practice, and Jason Ford, who is just arriving, will be in the hunt. LeShoure is a bigger (245-pounds) straight ahead runner; Ford is 215 but has great speed.

Either way, the position is in good shape. And when you consider that the Illini also are going to get a great deal of rushing yards from this guy Juice Williams, it would not be a surprise if they led the Big Ten in rushing for a third straight year.

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