Running Back Committee Discusses Roles

The Fighting Illini used a "running back by committee" approach last fall, with mixed results. Four backs brought different talents to the table, and in theory they were used depending on the situation to take advantage of their abilities. Things didn't always go smoothly due to injuries and inexperience. But this fall could see a more productive utilization of these backs.

Illinois uses a committee approach to using their running backs, so perhaps it takes that same committee to discuss running back prospects. Daniel Dufrene, Jason Ford and Mikel Leshoure all provided their thoughts at the end of spring ball.

The senior Dufrene missed some of spring ball with a hamstring pull, but he came back before he was completely healed to improve and compete for playing time.

"It's real critical, it's real important. That's why I wanted to come out here. Even though I'm not 100%, I just wanted to come out here and practice."

Dufrene realizes that freshmen Ford and Leshoure have gained experience and improved since last fall, and he wants to keep his starting position.

"They're looking real good. They're coming out here working hard and getting better every day."

Ford discussed Dufrene and Leshoure.

"Mikel lost a lot of weight from his injury, and he got bigger and stronger. Both of us got a lot quicker and stronger. Daniel kind of slowed down this spring due to his injury, but I think he'll be as good as he was last year."

Leshoure reciprocated with Ford.

"He has slimmed down a lot, and his stamina and his body feels a lot better. It makes the team that much better. It makes us have a bigger variety for our quarterback to go to."

Ford says the playing experience last fall as well as his weight loss and improved conditioning are paying off now.

"We were both (he and Leshoure) kind of worried about our game last year, we kind of rushed things. We were so worried about footwork and things. But now we're comfortable.

"I'm a lot quicker than I was last year, and I'm a lot stronger. They're comparing me to Shonn Greene (former Iowa star) around here. I'm trying to get down to 220, 215 for the season. That's what I played at my sophomore year (in high school).

"Just playing in all the big games I played in, it helps out alot. Just playing in front of big crowds, being under pressure, being in short yardage or first and goal helped out a lot."

Leshoure discusses himself in similar terms.

"I feel like I have a bigger role this year. Last year, I felt like I was kind of a role player just getting in and getting a little experience under my belt. This year, the coaches have expectations of me to do a certain job and perform a certain way. I feel my role this year has changed because I have a bigger role."

As a senior leader, Dufrene preferred to talk about the group as a whole and included scatback Troy Pollard in the discussion even though he wasn't available at the time to speak for himself.

"Everyone has gained experienced. We've got a year under our belts, and we're ready to go."

Leshoure spoke eloquently about what happened last fall to prevent the Illini from living up to their preseason expectations.

"I guess you could say that people settled a little bit. We were kind of happy going to the Rose Bowl. I guess you could say that going into the season people had a feel of where we wanted to be that they thought it could be easy to get back to where we were.

"This year we took a whole different approach, and we know exactly what we need to do. You can't take anything for granted. We had some players who went straight to the Rose Bowl and didn't go through the hard times that Illinois had in the years before that. The coaches stressed that we can't settle for anything and that we can't be comfortable."

Ford described 2008 in simpler terms, but he also believes 2009 will be a better year for the Illini.

"I think this year we click a little bit more. I don't know what it was, but last year we just didn't click as much. But in spring ball, everything seemed to be put together."

Perhaps new offensive coordinator Mike Schultz helped by simplifying things.

"Coach Locksley's offense was a lot more complex, a lot more with footwork things," Ford explained. Coach Schultz is not like that, so I guess the guys are a little more comfortable with the offense."

Ford sees a continuing effort to play all the running backs, including Pollard and perhaps one or both of the incoming freshmen Justin Green and Bud Golden.

"We're still doing running back by committee. All of us are competing, all of us know we are good backs. We're just gonna keep on competing and get better and better. It's always heated."

As with the others, Leshoure is not concerned about who starts as long as the running backs are productive and the Illini are winning.

"I think its an everyday thing. We'll go practice to practice. Camp Rantoul is when we'll figure out who is the starter. The stretch lines change everyday and the rotation changes everyday so Coach Zook doesn't want anyone getting comfortable thinking they're the number one man.

"It's not as big of a deal as some people think it is. We have running backs who are going to play regardless of the starter. The rotation will change probably every game. The only thing with the starter is that he'll be on the field first and be in the first series."

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