Senior Daniel Dufrene has logged a lot of minutes at Illinois. He shared the rushing load in St. Louis against Missouri in his debut two years ago, scampered 80 yards to set up an important touchdown in the big win at Ohio State that year, and has continued to flash his speed and pass receiving ability.
Dufrene shared time last year with then freshmen Jason Ford and Mikel Leshoure. Sophomore Troy Pollard played sparingly last year due to injury, but he burst onto the scene two years ago with his quickness and shiftiness before knee surgery ended his season. They are joined this fall by newcomers Justin Green, a Kentucky sprint champion, and Cincinnati's Bud Golden.
The coach responsible for getting the most out of these players and assigning playing time is Reggie Mitchell. He requires a great deal from his men, but the talent and experience available to him this year pleases him.
"Yeah, I am. Last year, we had two guys in Mikel and Jason who had just started to play college ball. This year, those guys have played in some games and had some success. So they know the offense, and it has been a little easier camp for them with fewer missed assignments, things like that."
Dufrene had some problems in short yardage situations, but he has bulked up to 215 rock-hard pounds and is trying to compete with power runners Ford and Leshoure for short yardage situations.
"Daniel's running with a little more power. That's not gonna be his game though. He's more of a finesse guy. But to his credit, he's gotten bigger and is trying to play a little more physical."
Pollard has also worked diligently in the off season and has added needed strength and weight. But it hasn't slowed his speed.
"Coach Lou (Hernandez) does a great job with them in the summer program. He has in mind a weight where they can still be effective."
Freshmen Green and Golden also have flashed excellent talent this fall. It appears Green is being groomed to see time this fall.
"Justin's a talented kid. It's just a matter of him learning the offense and being able to play rather than think. Justin's not a track guy, he's a football player. He's got great feet, good instincts and vision. The more he learns the offense, the better he's gonna be."
Mitchell is not quick to praise, so that says something. He also sees potential in the slashing Golden, although he doesn't know yet if he's a speed back or power back.
"With Bud right now, it's hard to tell. He doesn't know the offense, so we haven't had a chance to see what he can do. But he's just got to continue along and progress."
None of the four upperclassmen are receiving the bulk of the practice reps, sharing time with each other and the freshmen. But Mitchell says that may be a good thing in the long run.
"Right now, what we're trying to do is get a look at the two freshmen and see what they can do. Once we get to game-planning Missouri, we'll start getting down on the guys that are gonna be playing.
"Actually, I think it's kind of helping them because they're not getting as many reps. So they should be fresh going into the season."
One other backfield performer works with Mitchell. Freshman Greg Fuller is the first true fullback recruited in the Ron Zook regime. The 5'-10", 240 pounder is a blockbuster blocker with speed and pass-catching ability. How soon he plays will be determined by how quickly he learns the system.
"He's doing all right. He's still learning the offense. I think he has the ability to play, but as long as he's learning he's not gonna be aggressive and playing as fast as he needs to play. He's doing a good job. He's just got to continue learning the offense. The more he learns, the better he'll be."
Fuller may also eventually see time at special teams. His blocking could eventually be valuable on the field goal and extra point teams, among others.
"That's a long way off. What we'll try to do right now is find the best players and put them in position to help us if they can."
If there is a need for a fullback and Fuller is not yet ready, there is another option.
"We play Zach Becker, he's kind of a hybrid guy. He's a tight end and fullback. He was a fullback last year, so we've got two."
So coach, are you excited about your group?