Best RB Corps Since Rose Bowl Season

Offensive Coordinator Paul Petrino wants to "feed the studs." The first place to look for them on this year's Fighting Illini football team is at running back. There is quality, experience and depth. If the Illini can establish a running game, their whole offense can open up.

You saw signs of it each of the past two seasons. Mikel Leshoure finding a crease in a defense, cutting back like he does so deftly and sprinting the length of the field. Jason Ford lowering his pads, exploding forward and bulldozing an opposing linebacker. Now, with each set to begin their junior seasons, the Illinois running back position is as good as it has been since the Rose Bowl season of '07.

"Both of those guys have really developed," Coach Ron Zook said. "They've worked hard."

New offensive coordinator Paul Petrino knew he had something special in Leshoure before he ever met him. In his introductory press conference he was asked if he knew anything about the players he was inheriting. He admitted he had watched a little film by then.

"I saw No. 5," he said with a grin. "I think he's pretty good."

It may be merely coincidence that Leshoure, a 6-foot-, 230-pounder, wears the same number as the great Rashard Mendenhall, the first rounder who led the Rose Bowl team. But the similarities are obvious. Both are big and strong, both tremendous cutback runners. Mendenhall was faster, Leshoure is bigger. Both could take it to the house.

Ford, meanwhile, at 5-11 and probably closer to 240, isn't as likely to go the distance, although he has. But he is the grinder, the Jerome Bettis like punisher who finishes off runs and defenses. Together, they can be devastating.

Two more backs also can get into the mix. Troy Pollard is only 5-8, but he runs strong at 200 pounds or so and finally seems fully recovered from a devastating knee injury his freshman year. And speedy Justin Green was hurt in the spring, but should be full go come fall.

"Spring was the first time Bucket of Hair (Pollard) really looked like his old self," Zook said. "That was the Troy Pollard we recruited. You could see it."

Finally, the most pleasant surprise of the entire spring might have been Zach Becker. The former walk-on fullback is a 6-2, 250-pound blocker/pass-catcher who completes Petrino's backfield. Combined, it is the most talented position on the team.

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