2.25 (57): Mikel Leshoure
Running Back, Illinois
On the day he declared for the NFL Draft, Mikel Leshoure's words matched those of thousands of other kids who've gone through the process. It's practically boilerplate:
"I believe I have accomplished everything I can at the college level and want to go after my dream: playing in the NFL."
For millions, playing in the NFL is a dream they'll never have the opportunity to pursue, because they weren't born with the talent. Mikel Leshoure was born with talent, but little else —- Mikel LeShoure was born in prison.
Mikel, and his mother Jacqueline "Jazz" Frasier-Jones, faced an almost impossible climb up life's mountain. Post-release, Jazz battled drug and alcohol addictions (and prior drug convictions), and worked multiple jobs to provide for Mikel. Meanwhile, Mikel spent the earliest years of his life with his aunt and stepmother; his father was in sporadic contact, fighting drug demons and prison sentences of his own. All three persevered, though: his mother has stayed clean and sober for 15 years, father got a good job, got back in contact, and was present at Mikel's draft announcement, and Mikel racked up 4,652 yards and 52 rushing touchdowns at Champaign Centennial High School.
That's Champaign, as in Champaign, Illinois—and from the sound of it, Illinois head coach Ron Zook didn't let Leshoure, a three-star RB recruit per both Scout.com and Rivals.com, leave his backyard. Listed at 6'-0", 220 pounds, Leshoure had offers from Iowa and Wisconsin, as well as Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, and Boston College. He was Rivals' 28th-ranked running back, nationally, and Scout's 52nd.
Mikel saw some platoon time right away his freshman year, and even started a game. However, he got into a fight with teammate Jeff Cumberland, now a TE with the Jets, and Cumberland broke Leshoure's jaw. Leshoure spent six weeks on a liquid-only diet, and he realized he could stand to drop his freshman fifteen. In the layoff between his freshman and sophomore year, Mikel went from 237 back down to a very lean (4.8% body fat) 228. In car circles, there's a classic quote from Lotus founder Colin Chapman: "If you want to add speed, add lightness," and that's exactly what Leshoure did.
Besides his diet, Mikel knew that he had to make lifestyle and attitude changes, too, if he was to be the lead dog in the Illini's four-tailback pack:
"I'm bigger, stronger, faster — all of that," Leshoure said. "The main things were my diet and not going out and partying, handling it and being smart. I stayed in more, just hanging out with the family. It was pretty easy because the No. 1 thing I thought about was football season and what would make me better."
With his maturing mind, maturing frame, and returned explosion, Leshoure notched multiple hundred-yard games his sophomore year, culminating in a 184-yard explosion against Fresno State that got him Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors. He used his size, speed, and improved conditioning to wear down defenses; his second-half YpC was 7.6, and all five of his rushing TDs came after halftime. He was named Honorable Mention All-Big Ten.
In his junior year, Mikel Leshoure blew everything up. I'll just quote the official bio:
AWARDS & HONORS
• College Football Performance Awards Running Back of the Year (2010)
• Second-team All-American by the Associated Press (2010)
• Third-team All-American by Rivals.com and Phil Steele (2010)
• Honorable mention All-American by SI.com and Pro Football Weekly (2010)
• First-team All-Big Ten by both coaches and media (2010)
• 2010 Texas Bowl MVP
• 2010 Team MVP and Most Outstanding Offensive Back
• Illinois season rushing yards (1,697)
• Illinois season points scored (122)
• Illinois season total touchdowns (20) and rushing touchdowns (17 - tied with Rashard Mendenhall)
• Illinois season 100-yard rushing games (9) and consecutive 100-yard rushing games (5)
• Illinois single-game rushing yards - 330 vs. Northwestern at Wrigley Field, 11/20/10
• Finished sixth on the UI career rushing list (2,557) and second in school history in all-purpose yards (1,893)
Got all that? Mikel Leshoure was one of the best running backs in the nation in 2010, with some truly astounding numbers and performances. Of course, Michigan fans remember Leshoure's five-touchdown game against them, but Mikel's real masterwork was the Northwestern game at Wrigley Field, where he carried the ball a whopping thirty-three times at a staggering 10 yards per clip, for a crushing 330 yards and two touchdowns. He was named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week, Walter Camp Foundation National Player of the Week, Rivals.com National Player of the Week and College Football Performance National Performer of the Week for that magnum opus. Now, let's see what the experts are saying.
Positives: Great size, very strong build... Plays faster on tape than timed speed... Does a great job holding the football close to his body... Very quick feet, reaches his top speed almost immediately which makes him a big play threat... Gets his first 15-20 yards in a hurry, tough to contain... Runs through tackles, does a great job getting through trash and running between the tackles... Keeps his legs moving at all times, very hard to slow down... Runs with low pad level, delivers hits rather than absorb them... Great vision, waits for his blockers... Soft hands, is growing to be a capable receiver out of the backfield... Put up big numbers against tough Big 10 defenses, had only one game this year with less than 75 rushing yards... One of the few backs in this class that has the potential to be a true workhorse.CBSSports.com:
Negatives: Really has only had one great season thus far... Often tries to break the big play rather than settle for a short gain, is prone to some negative yardage plays... Broke his jaw in 2008 after an altercation with a teammate at Illinois... Conditioning was a concern in the past... Takes most of his handoffs out of the shotgun in Illinois' spread option offense... Ran poorly at combine.
Inside running: Powerful back, gets behind his pads when running inside. Runs with lean, and has a small strike zone for which opponents to get a square hit. Good vision to cut away from traffic, very smooth in his cuts. Keeps legs moving after initial contact. Can jump over piles near the line. If the line provides a big hole, he has an elite burst to hit second level at full speed. Excellent ball security, keeps it high and tight. Must avoid stopping to run outside when defenders penetrate, instead taking the couple of yards behind his line. Usually uses his fullback when in the I-formation, but must trust him in short yardage situations. Sells fake handoffs.
Outside running: Thick upper- and lower-body build but he has the vision and quick feet to bounce outside as if he were a smaller back. Exceptional burst makes him capable of turning the corner to break off chunks of yardage. Has patience and vision to take a pitch and find a cutback lane and explode through it. Keeps his pad level low outside, which combined with a low center of gravity and strong legs, make him tough to tackle. Not afraid to push a pile or carry a defender a few yards after initial contact. Does not go out of bounds right away, willing to lower a shoulder to get a couple of extra yards.
Compares to: Ryan Mathews, Chargers -- Mathews had a stellar junior season but didn't stand out in San Diego, battling ankle problems until late in the season. Leshoure has the same combination of open-field burst and power, with a chance to be an impact rookie.
Positives: Looks every bit the part with a chiseled, NFL physique with little body fat. Sturdy runner equipped to make a living between the tackles. Quick-footed and shifty and shows some shimmy in the hole. Can get to and through the second level. Barrels through contact. Can handle a heavy workload and responds to a lather. Soft hands. Physical cut blocker. Outstanding production — paced Big Ten running backs his final two seasons with 6.4 yards per rush. Has a 38-inch vertical jump.
Negatives: Inconsistent down-to-down compete level. Does not attack holes, and too much of his production is blocked for him — was barely touched on long gains in career-best 330-yard performance against Northwestern. Is tight in the hips. Lacks extra gear to break away and play speed is not exceptional. Average vision and run instincts — the game does not come natural to him. Does not run angry and is not as powerful or as punishing as he could be.
Summary: A downhill runner who looks every bit the part, Leshoure carried the offense and flashes starter-caliber ability, though he could require time to acclimate to a complementary big-back role and handle the physicality of the NFL game. Sheer size and bellcow potential will appeal most to physical, ground-oriented attacks such as that of the Dolphins, Steelers, Jets, Titans or Lions.
But what do "the experts" really know? We have indisputable, infallible, visual evidence—the one and only prognosticator of future NFL success: YOUTUBE HIGHLIGHT REELS!!
First, the highlights of that incredible day against Northwestern:
Next, we have some Illinois offense-only "every snap" videos; first the aforementioned Michigan game, and then the 2010 Texas Bowl vs. Baylor (the pic above is LeShoure accepting the Texas Bowl MVP trophy). Lots of non-Leshoure snaps, of course, but you're getting the lumps along with the good stuff, here, too:
Leshoure reminds me of another Lions running back, one who stood a very similar 6'-1", 224: James Stewart. Stewart, like Leshoure, made a lot of hay between the tackles -— and if Stewart lacked a certain je ne sais quoi in comparison, he probably hit a little bit harder. Both had excellent acceleration into "good" straight-line speed, both played faster than their reputation or clock times would suggest. Stewart, though, struggled mightily to stay healthy . . . let's hope Leshoure doesn't have that problem.
Leshoure has wonderful stop/start for a man his size, and you see it deployed to his advantage many times up above. He also has nicely fluid legs that allows him to redirect and cut while keeping his shoulders square and his upper body quiet. He appears to have nice hands, but for some reason wasn't used much in the passing game—and I don't think he'll be thrown to much here, either.
His vision seems to be okay, but not as prescient as Best's; he doesn't have that Sandersesque "I'm cutting this way and setting my shoulders that way, thereby juking the guy in front of me and freezing the guy behind him" way of seeing the field. Sometimes he seems to go for the home run when he just needs to get four, and sometimes, he plows ahead when there was another lane open. Remember, he only started one full season; he has a lot of learning left to do. Further, unlike Kevin Smith, Mikel Leshoure has a lot of tread left on his tires—extremely important for a mostly-between-the-tackles back.
In short, Mikel Leshoure looks to be an excellent complement to Jahvid Best, much the way Stewart combined with Fred Taylor in Jacksonville. This isn't a "thunder and lightning" situation, like Tiki Barber and Ron Dayne, or Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott. Some folks had Leshoure rated as their No. 1 workhorse back due to Ingram's injury concerns; he and Best will doubtlessly find a mutually beneficial workload ratio. Together, they'll spell each other, make each other more effective, and back each other up—the Lions' offense shouldn't ever be without a tailback that can keep defenses honest.
Researching this piece has me deep in thought about the power of the NFL, the power of people's dreams, and the incredible diversity of paths these young men take to achieve glory. The truth is, whether you were born in a correctional facility, or grew up down the street from Bobby Layne's house in an exclusive suburb, it takes incredible dedication, hard work, perseverance—and still, even, a little luck—to make it to the NFL. For most of these rookies, the hard part is just beginning . . . but for Mikel Leshoure, I bet, even two-a-days will still feel like a dream.
About The Author
Ty Schalter is a professional geek and family man He regularly converts his undying fandom into words and numbers both for RoarReport com, and his Detroit Lions blog, "The Lions in Winter"