Mikel Leshoure has been on a remarkable run these last few months. After gaining 1,697 yards and scoring 22 touchdowns for Illinois during the 2010 season, he was named All-Big 10 and All-American. And he topped it off by being named Most Valuable Player for the Illini Saturday.
Leshoure was grateful for the honor and pleased to see his name join the ranks of some of the best football players in Illinois history.
"Definitely. It's an honor and a privilege to be considered an MVP for this team and put in a category with the rest of those guys. Teammates voted on it. We got to pick two guys we thought were the most valuable players on the team. I voted for Corey Liuget and Jeff Allen."
Leshoure got off to a rocky beginning as an Illini. Enrolling a semester early after graduating from Champaign Centennial, Leshoure was immature and out of shape. Through his first two seasons, he alternated between making good runs during games and getting suspended for his behavior off the field. Even last spring, he begged out of a scrimmage with an extremely mild injury.
But little by little he grew up. He transformed his body and became a model citizen. He earned his MVP award as much by his relationships with teammates as his play in games.
"Definitely. I grew as a person off the field. Coach (Ron) Zook always talked about how the type of player you are off the field is the type of player you are on the field.
"I think my behavior and things I did off the field carried onto the field this year. The hard work ethic, eating right, taking care of my body and doing the little things. It showed this year."
Although it had been announced previously, Leshoure was given a large trophy as the top 2010 College Football Performance Awards Running Back in the nation during ceremonies at the Assembly Hall during the Illinois basketball game with Ohio State Saturday. It was a special moment for the home town hero.
"It was a good game. I was hoping to see those guys pull it off. It was an honor to receive that award among family and friends. People who have been cheering for me and watching me since I was a little boy."
Leaving school a year early to pursue a pro football career, Leshoure has been hearing good things about his NFL draft status. But he knows nothing is final until the draft is conducted.
"I'm hearing a lot of stuff since I put my name in and declared. I've seen stuff on ESPN, which has me going in the first round, late first round or second round. But I'm not worried about that right now, just worried about the things I can control: being in the best shape of my life and getting ready for the Combine. I hope to get there and see my stock increase."
Where he might fall in the draft is just speculation right now. But he doesn't mind the publicity.
"I think any publicity is good publicity. People are getting to hear my name on the national stage. That doesn't mean anything. It's just someone's opinion. I certainly need to work hard and get after it."
Leshoure is now preparing for the NFL Combine, where all professional teams interview, poke, prod and test prospective draftees to see who measures up. Regardless of his college success, the Combine will go a long way toward determining where Leshoure goes in the draft and how much money he can expect to make. He is getting ready for it.
"It's been tough weeks. We've been getting after it, running and trying to get in the best shape of my life to do the best I can do at the Combine. It's a lot of hard work, but it's nothing I'm not used to. I'm looking forward to getting after it.
"I'm very dedicated. I'm a living testimony of how hard work pays off. I think I did that last year, and it showed on the field this year. So I'm going in with the same mentality this off season and do the same thing I did last year."
He is aware that his speed is a concern for the pros. To that end, he is working with a former Baylor star and Olympic sprint champion.
"I'm working out in McKinney, Texas, at Michael Johnson Performance. Yeah, he was a Baylor guy. He gave me a hard time about running over those guys in the bowl game. We mess around all the time, and I'm glad to be working with him. Him and the other guys train me."
The key for Leshoure at the Combine is his time in the 40 yard dash. Has he been timed yet?
"Not yet. No times, just working out. A lot of speed improvement, just getting as ready as possible. I definitely think it's something I need to work on. It's a concern for a lot of scouts and a lot of GM's in the League."
Pro scouts hold a Pro Timing Day every spring for local NFL hopefuls on campus. Does Leshoure expect to show his wares there also?
"I know I'll be training there (Texas) until the Combine. After that, I'm not really sure. It depends on how I do at the Combine as to whether I need to work out at Pro Day."
Leshoure will be missed on the Illini team next year, but everyone is pleased to see how well he has performed and know he will be an outstanding representative of the University of Illinois.