Mikel Leshoure, the lightly recruited running back from Champaign Centennial, is rapidly becoming a potential pro prospect. He had some personal issues that prevented him from achieving more on the field in the past, but that seems to be behind him. He is working hard and taking a team-first approach.
"It's going pretty good. Just getting ready for the season."
Some felt Leshoure should have played more than Jason Ford and the other rushers last year, but then running back coach Reggie Mitchell disagreed. With DeAndre Smith now the running back coach and Paul Petrino the new offensive coordinator, does this give Leshoure a new lease on life?
"I wouldn't say I needed it, but it's always good to have a clean slate with a new group of guys. Like Coach says, we leave the past in the past. We've just got to move forward. I have great respect for that."
Leshoure arrived at Illinois as a bulky, out-of-condition athlete some thought would never become a dominant college player. But he has worked hard to lose weight and transform his body. In a recent scrimmage, he sped past quick defensive backs, pulling away for a long touchdown run. His extra speed and maneuverability are obvious.
"Oh yeah, my strength's pretty good, my conditioning is pretty good. I feel like I'm in pretty good shape this year. I'm just planning to go out and have a good season.
"I weigh about 220 right now. I lost a little bit more than last year. I'm just watching out for my diet, being true to that. I think by doing that it will allow me to be a better football player."
Speed and strength can carry you only so far. Learning proper technique often separates great runners from good runners.
"For one thing, I just want to focus on hitting the holes instead of stuttering my feet and looking for extra cuts. It will make me a more physical, tough runner. I think I can get more yards with that kind of stuff."
In addition, he is taking monotonous drill work more seriously as he begins to understand its importance.
"Yeah. The drills we did we just wanted to get through them and go practice. But if you really think about it, a lot of the drills for footwork actually happen in practices and games. Cuts where we circle a Hula Hoop, put your hand down so you won't fall or hit the ground, keep your balance. So the drills do have an effect on the game. I definitely think they have helped me."
Another area he's needed to improve upon is pass protection. Most running backs prefer to have others block for them instead of vice versa.
"I also want to be more physical with protections. As a running back, not only do you need to run the ball, but you need to pick up blitzes and protections for the quarterback. Coach Smith has emphasized that, and I'm trying to get better at that."
Leshoure ran for 734 yards in 108 carries in 2009 for an impressive 6.8 yard per carry average. He also grabbed 14 passes for an additional 177 yards. An adept pass catcher, Leshoure is looking forward to adding to his receiver totals. The new offense brought in by Paul Petrino is conducive to that.
"I definitely think so. Coach has a lot of routes where backs have to run out to the flats, doing stuff like that. I'm not sure if I'm the first or second option on those plays, but I definitely think with checkdowns, if the quarterback gets in trouble he can rely on the running backs to catch the ball."
More importantly, Leshoure believes the new offense is ideally suited to his running skills.
"Yes, I think it is more of a pro-style running back attack with a lead blocker. It's a lot more downhill plays rather than option reads. We'll do some of that a little bit, but I think the pro-style offense is better for me."
Leshoure was recently named to the Doak Walker Watch List for running backs. Petrino is happy for his young player.
"I think it's great, I think it's exciting."
Petrino expanded on his impressions of Leshoure's game.
"He's worked hard. He had a great summer and really got stronger and faster. I'm excited to get him out there and see him play. We always talk to our players about we want to try to be the best at our position. Anytime you play is a chance to do it, so now it's time to go out there and try to prove it and try be one of the best."