Illinois began spring practice with four running backs sharing time. Senior Daniel Dufrene, redshirt sophomore Troy Pollard and sophomores Jason Ford and Mikel Leshoure all looked good at the first practice. But then Dufrene suffered a hamstring pull and Pollard tweaked his surgically repaired knee. Coach Ron Zook had a visual reminder why he must continue to recruit running backs.
"It's amazing, you've got four back you feel really, really good about and then boom, one day you only have two. You can never have enough running backs."
Fortunately, both Dufrene and Pollard recovered in time to see playing time in the Spring Game. Zook knows he needs his most experienced athletes in the game when possible, and Dufrene is one of those.
"He's going to be in the rotation. I think the more he does, the better you're going to be. I think you're either going to get worse or get better as a football player. I think when you've got a chance to practice and compete you're going to get better. That's something that Daniel has done. He did a pretty good job for the limited practice he's had. He knows the offense and he's a smart guy."
Pollard played last fall, but he wasn't completely recovered from knee surgery the previous year. This spring was the first time he showed his amazing maneuverability and quickness. As a smaller player, he can't stand the pounding of an everydown back. But as a change of pace, he can be dynamic.
"You can see Troy's back to almost 100%," Zook exclaims. "He's got great hands, and you can hit him out of the backfield. He knows the offense and knows what to do."
In their absence, Ford and Leshoure received the bulk of practice reps this spring. Both lost weight and added strength, making them quicker and more maneuverable than last fall. Running back coach Reggie Mitchell is pleased with their progress.
"A world of difference. When we went to the Missouri game, I was worried that one of them was going to have to play. Now they have a better grasp of the offense, and their abilities are starting to come out now that they aren't thinking as much.
"I think they both have a chance to be pretty good players. There are some things they both need to continue to work on. I feel good about where we are at the running back position."
Ford and Leshoure are not breakaway backs, but at 225 pounds each, they are able to get the tough yardage.
"They remind me of a Pierre Thomas," Mitchell says, referring to the former Illini star and current New Orleans Saint. The first guy is not going to tackle them, but I don't think they'll go 80 yards. They can go 40."
Pass protection was a problem for both youngsters last fall according to Mitchell. Opponents found blitzing successful in part because of a lack of experience protecting the quarterback.
"Some of it was those guys being able to recognize what they need to do in blitz and pass protection. That's why the experience of playing last fall will benefit them this year.
"They've been in a game, and now they're not nervous to be in there. Last year, Jason Ford didn't want to do too many, but this year he's happy to do them. Now he feels confident and has a better grasp of the offense."
Mitchell says the solution to any problem is practice.
"With those guys, we want to be more consistent in the passing game, route running, and blocking. In the running game, they're confident about what they're doing, but in the passing game they're a little unsure about it. It's just a matter of doing it over, over, and over."
Fortunately, new offensive coordinator Mike Schultz didn't make major changes in the offense, allowing youngsters like Ford and Leshoure to continue their progress without having to relearn things.
"It's the same offense," Mitchell summarizes. "What's helped those guys is that they know the offense from last year, and they're a little bit more confident in what they're doing."
Illinois coaches have placed heavy emphasis on ball security this spring, and the running backs have cooperated according to Mitchell.
"We're going to work on ball security with the entire offense. From the running backs, we haven't had any fumbles this spring. You know, when you go back last year and look at it, Daniel had two fumbles and Jason had three. So the running backs had 5 fumbles.
"Against Minnesota, we had the fumble on the first play of the second half and they get a touchdown out of that. Then Juice has one in the same game. If you're turning the ball over, you're not giving yourself a chance to win."
Zook feels he has a good situation at running back. He has both quantity and quality. And the older players are helping the younger ones improve.
"Players are always gonna get better. Football's a reaction game. Those running backs are gonna continue to get better. Now, it's not so much thinking, it's the God-given ability of just running, blocking and protecting. They make great strides that first spring and second year because they understand what's going on a little bit better. And the older guys have helped the young guys."
Two more running backs join the stable this fall. Louisville's Justin Green and Cincinnati's Bud Golden are eager to compete for playing time. Green is a slender sprint champ who will compete with Dufrene and Pollard for the change-of-pace spot. He can break a play at any time but lacks the bulk to pound the ball inside play after play.
Golden is a 190 pound slasher who may be more suited for running between the tackles ala Ford and Leshoure. Zook looks forward to seeing what everyone can do in Camp Rantoul.
"I'm excited about the two young guys coming in. I don't think you ever have too many running backs. It's a position we not only have quantity, we have quality as well. I don't think you have to have one guy. If somebody separates himself, great. But I think you need everybody."