DeAndre Smith Has Running Back Talent

The position with perhaps the most depth on the Fighting Illini football team is running back. DeAndre Smith is in his first season guiding the backs, and he is finding plenty to like in his job. While some Illini coaches are verbally demonstrative on the practice field, Smith makes his point in a quieter way. It seems to be working.

Illinois coaches have been ratcheting up the intensity on the practice field to get their players to play at the highest level possible. While some areas of the field are loud throughout, the running back area stands in stark contrast. DeAndre Smith sometimes jokes around with his players before practice begins but gets his point across when needed.

"Trust me now, I'm getting on them. What I've learned is I just be myself. I might take those guys off to the side and let them know what they're doing wrong and need to correct. I just do it within my demeanor.

"My way is just as effective. When they do something wrong, they know they've done something wrong. What I want to do is get the point across. I might not raise my voice all the time, but when I need to I will."

Of course, he is blessed with talent and depth. All four running back candidates are working hard and doing well. That makes any coach's job easier.

"Overall, when it's time to work they've been effective. They do what they're supposed to do. They're supposed to carry this team, running the ball very physical, and I've been able to get that out of them."

The Illini tackled infrequently at Camp Rantoul to keep bodies fresh and healthy. Many times, running backs could have gained more yardage if defenders were required to put them on the ground. At times, this can be frustrating for the backs and their coach.

"It has been. What I look at fundamentally, for Jason Ford for instance, he needs to have his pads down a little lower at contact. I can see that when he's doing that, when he does get tackled he'll fall forward, gain 2, 3 extra yards.

"So yeah, when you're not tackling it's hard to say if they would have broke it. I'd like to say they would have if they're in good position because they are so big and physical. Right now I'm just teaching them fundamentals."

Juniors Mikel Leshoure and Ford received most of the playing time last year, but Troy Pollard and Bud Golden are providing plenty of competition. And the best thing is they are all healthy.

"Yeah knock on wood. Everyone's been healthy so far. Don't rule the younger guys out. Bud Golden has done some things. Troy's a veteran, and I feel really good about him. Put those guys out there and they can do some things.

"They don't know the whole thing yet. There's some things they do really, really well. We need them to do that."

More than likely, each will see playing time as part of packages designed to take advantage of their assets.

"I think so. I think as the time goes on, the more they can handle the more they'll get. But I think they're unique, they can do something really, really well that maybe the other guy can't. If there's a need for it and a way to get them in, I will definitely do that."

Smith was asked to talk briefly about each back, starting with Leshoure.

"He's been solid, been consistent. We grade every practice. His missed assignments are the lowest of all the guys in the group. He's been a leader, he's physical, he's been through every practice, been tough. When he goes we go."

Leshoure disappointed his coaches late in the spring when he begged out of a scrimmage with a minor injury. But he has matured since then and practiced even when he had some pain in an ankle.

"He toughed it out. He did not miss one rep, did not miss one practice. So that's the thing you like to see because there's gonna be bumps and bruises. He's a big back. He's gonna have those, and he needs to fight through them. He's doing a great job of that."

Ford appears slimmed down from last season.

"He has lost weight. I went back from the very first practice to now, and he looks exactly the same. He's fast, he's quick. His pad level needs to be lower sometimes because he likes to make people miss instead of using that big body.

"But he has lost weight and looks a whole lot better. His conditioning, he can maintain himself through a whole practice. He's been really good."

Troy Pollard has taken two years to recover his quickness after knee surgery. He seems to be back to his old self, if his play at the Rantoul High School scrimmage was any indication.

"He looked great. We talked about it the other day. This is the best he's felt since he's been here. He's steady, we all know that. We can put him in, and Troy's gonna be real effective for us."

Golden was behind the learning curve in the spring, but he appears to have caught up.

"Overall, his missed assignments have been to a minimum. He's been running well. He'll always flash and have a good run here and there. He's a lot better today than he ever was the entire spring."

Justin Green practiced through Camp Rantoul as a running back. The Kentucky speedster also figured to play this season. Smith considered him a home run hitter, the kind every team needs. But Green volunteered to switch to cornerback to provide depth there.

Pass protection and overall blocking have been deficiencies for the backs at times in the past. That also seems to be resolving itself.

"I think they do a great job. They understand the offense, they understand where they fit. Sometimes we have to exchange with the offensive line, and they've done that. Again, missed assignments in the protection game has been minimal. Overall they've been really solid."

Illini fullbacks play an important role in the running game. They split their practice time between Smith and tight end coach Chip Long. Zach Becker is the acknowledged leader, but he appears to have capable backups in sophomore walkon Missouri transfer Chris Willett and freshman Jay Prosch.

"I think they're both kind of getting in there. Willett right now, you like to think he is a savvy veteran even though he's a young guy, and he'll go out and hit. For what we need to use our fullbacks for, we need to use both of them. I think Prosch is gonna be a really good football player in the near future. So we're happy with all three of those guys."

Because of the importance of the running game and the physical nature of the fullback position, Smith expects all three fullbacks to get playing time.

"I think so. There's no question we're gonna need them because we're gonna run the football. We need those guys out front. There's no question we're gonna use all three."

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