Freshman LeShoure Already a Factor

Coach Ron Zook continues to demonstrate the value of doing his own evaluations when recruiting players for the Illinois football team. Ignoring guru rating systems, he and his staff recruit players they project will have bright college futures. That is why they brought in running back Mikel LeShoure, who is playing a prominent role as a freshman.

LeShoure was a star at Champaign Centennial High School and obliterated career rushing records there. He was named a Prep Star and SuperPrep All-American, but he did not receive the recruiting interest one might expect from a player with his credentials. That may have made it easier for him to accept not being the main man like he was in high school.

"Coming in, I knew it was gonna be different from high school. I wasn't gonna be the man; I had to play my role. So I was ready for it."

It can be a burden for some athletes to play college ball in their home town, especially with the high expectations his family and friends have for him. But not Mikel. He embraces the challenge and is adjusting rapidly.

"When we came out of the tunnel, you had a chance to look around. But as you get on the field and get playing, the crowd is out of your head. I wouldn't say I was nervous. You can't look around at the crowd, or you will get butterflies and get nervous. I was more happy to get out there than anything."

The 6'-0", 240 pounder played a couple series against Missouri but didn't carry the ball. Against Eastern Illinois University, he gained 49 impressive yards in ten carries. He was excited for his early opportunity to impress the home folk.

"It felt real good. It's good to get involved earlier than later. Once you get into a rhythm, that helps your running. I felt good to get out early. I think I did a pretty good job, and I'm ready for practice."

LeShoure enrolled early at Illinois to get a head start on his education and learning the offense. He struggled adapting to the rigors of college coursework, practice and all the conditioning.

"I struggled a lot, spring and camp. The offense is very complicated. You've got to be real quick, and you've got to pick up the signals quick. You've got to pick up blitzes and learn not just one defense. You've got to be smart here.

"After being at practice every day, after awhile you pick things up. Getting in the playbooks, going in to watch film, all of that helps. So it's more than just practice."

Mikel is one of four running backs competing for playing time, and two are freshmen. So there will be some growing pains.

"We're young. We have two experienced players, really one since Troy Pollard was hurt last year. But we're learning from Daniel (Dufrene), and we have a bright future."

Fellow freshman Jason Ford was a four year star in high school, but he too is just beginning to understand the complexities of the offense.

"Jason and me are real good friends. We practice together, compete, and we make each other better. I feel a little more comfortable out here since I came in early. When you know your assignments, you're not as nervous. Jason knows the stuff pretty well, but sometimes he probably second guesses himself."

Dufrene is the clear starter, but Pollard, Ford and LeShoure will all get their chances to share the ball carrying load. Running back coach Reggie Mitchell uses all four and may adjust the depth chart week to week.

"Coach Mitchell just told us to be ready, that he was going to get us out there. He didn't guarantee a lot of carries, he didn't guarantee anything. He just told us to come prepared like you will play."

Now that he is involved on game day, Mikel feels a part of the team and can address the needs of his offense.

"We have plenty of work to do. There were times we could have put the (EIU) game away, but we didn't. We've got to work offensively and defensively to get ready for the teams down the road."

LeShoure is undecided on a major, although he is considering Sports Management. He is grateful he had a chance to enroll early since he is now much more comfortable with both school and football.

"School's a lot easier than it was the first semester. Now I know what the college atmosphere is like. I'm ahead of the game with school and football too, compared with the other freshmen. It helped to come here early."

Illini Inquirer Top Stories