Champaign Centennial product Mikel Leshoure had some success his freshman year, but inconsistency due primarily to a lack of comfort with the offense limited what he could do. With that learning process now complete, Leshoure looks to be a valuable contributor to the 2009 Illinois team.
"I'm a lot more confident, a lot more comfortable in general. I play a lot more like it. I'm not out there thinking who I'm gonna block or where I'm gonna run. It's all natural now. I can just play without thinking, which makes me play a lot better."
It also helps that he has lost weight and transformed body fat into solid muscle.
"I'm 225 now. Last year during the season I was 237-238. I'm right where I want to be. I'm right where Lou (Hernandez, strength and conditioning coach) wants me.
"I've been watching what I've been eating. I know what I've got to do to be successful on the field. I keep that in the back of my mind every minute."
Leshoure knows he must fight every day for playing time since senior Daniel Dufrene and fellow sophomores Troy Pollard and Jason Ford all have the same goals. And freshmen Justin Green and Bud Golden are hungry for playing time as well.
"It's real intense. But it's something that's gonna make us better. We're all coming from high schools where we're the number one guy, where we get all the carries and all the fame. But coming to D-1 football, everyone's like you. They're as fast and strong as you.
"If you don't allow someone to help you get better in practice, then you can't get into a game and just turn a switch on. We all understand there's competition, but we all understand we're gonna get better."
The first year of college ball is tough for everyone. College football is much more complex than high school, and the learning curve is steep. With that experience behind him, Leshoure sees the rookies going through the same things he did last year.
"To me, I'm the guy Daniel and Troy were to me last year. I see the freshmen going through the exact same things I went through last year. The only thing I can tell them is not to get down on themselves because there's days you want to go home, close the door and just bawl, just cry out.
"Coaches get on you, they don't let up on you. They don't need to let up on you because you're gonna get better this way. We try to teach the freshman to just slow down, listen, and eventually it will come to you."
Team chemistry is good enough that upperclassmen are teaching the youngsters the ropes, making everyone better in the process. But at the same time, they are helping players who want to take their spots in the lineup.
"That comes into the back of your mind too. They're shooting for my spot. But I try not to let that affect my play. If I think about it, it might come off negatively and I don't want that. So we're just out here to compete. Let the best man play.
"My goal is the be the guy. You want to be the starter. If you're not the starter to begin the season, there's still a lot more games. So you've just got to bust your butt in practice because you don't know who will be the starter next game."
Leshoure shares his teammates' lofty team goals, and he believes they are reachable.
"This is probably the most excited I've ever been in my life in football. I think this year's gonna be real special. With the talent we have, the good group of guys, the chemistry. Everybody on our team is willing to be coached. And we've all got the same goal."
Did last year's disappointments make everyone want to work harder this time around?
"Yeah, I guess you could say that. The year before last, they came off the Rose Bowl season. A lot of guys might assume that we're back just because we had a lot of returnees. You know, they'd been there, they can do it again.
"And then we had what I call a fair season, and we didn't get to .500. That just picked us up for the summer workouts and winter workouts. We think about those games we lost every practice, every workout.
"We've got leaders this year, a lot more than we had last season. There are guys stepping up. I'm not sure why the chemistry is as strong as it is, but it's there. You can tell throughout the meetings, throughout the practices, in the locker room, everything."