RB Coach Mitchell Has a Host of Backs Ready

Illini football fans are naturally concerned about who will replace All-American Rashard Mendenhall at running back this year. But assistant coach Reggie Mitchell seems confident he has some ball carriers who can help keep Illinois among the Big Ten's rushing leaders in 2008.

Mitchell isn't prone to hype, but he sees positive developments with running backs Daniel Dufrene, Troy Pollard, Mikel LeShoure and Jason Ford.

"It's going all right. Daniel's had a good camp. Mikel's improved since the spring. Jason Ford has done a good job picking up things in the short time he's been here.

"And when Troy was here, he was good. When he was healthy, we were able to see what he could do. Then he got nicked up in the first scrimmage. He'll be back out there soon."

Coach Mitchell continues to emphasize a "running back by committee" approach.

"Yeah, I think we're gonna have to do that. Right now, Daniel could be the guy, but he's gonna need some help just like Rashard needed help last year. That's still in the plans for us right now."

Mitchell has noticed definite improvement in Dufrene since last year.

"He's done a great job catching the ball, and he's kind of taken on a leadership role. That's good. He's improved a lot since the past spring. It's night and day.

"When he came in last fall, he had the ability to run the ball, but his hands and ball skills weren't where they needed to be. To his credit, he worked at it over the summer. He now has one of the lowest drop percentages on offense.

"So that's gonna enable him to be in the game all the time now. You don't have to worry if you throw him a screen whether or not he will catch the ball."

Dufrene and fullback Rahkeem Smith have worked hard on their receiving skills.

"That's something that he and Rahkeem did in the summer on their own. They'd go out, turn on the Jugs machine and shoot balls to one another. They've both done a great job doing that."

A slashing runner with speed, Dufrene is plowing through open holes rather than dancing around. And he's working hard on his pass protection.

"He's running downhill and doing all the things you want him to do," Mitchell complimented. "You know, he's gotten better at blocking. He's a 200 pound guy, so he's not a really big guy. But he will stick his face in there and try to cover the guys up."

Freshmen LeShoure and Ford have both made positive impressions on Mitchell and are likely to play this year.

"Right now, it's looking that way. They're a lot similar. They both run with power. I'd say that Jason's a little more explosive than Mikel, but they both bring a big, tough, physical running style."

LeShoure and Ford are both improving their blocking responsibilities.

"The freshmen are catching on. That's the hardest thing for a freshman, the pass protection part of it."

Reggie Mitchell answered in the affirmative when asked if the freshmen were as good as he expected.

"Yeah. We'll find out more at the Missouri game. In the Rantoul scrimmage, Jason was probably a little bit better. The last scrimmage we had here (at Memorial Stadium), Mikel did better. So both had their days. I'm interested in seeing what they can do in a game."

Smith has the difficult task of replacing graduated fullback Russ Weil, who Mendenhall credited for much of his running success. But he has potential. Rahkeem is the only fullback on scholarship, so he is backed up by walkon Zach Becker, a freshman from St. Joseph-Ogden. Becker has made a positive impression as well.

"You know what, right now Rahkeem's the starter. But Becker for a walkon has done a great job. If he had to go in a game, I wouldn't hesitate to put him in. Given the number of plays a fullback normally plays, we would only use one of those guys unless it's a short yardage, goal line situation."

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