When Rashard Mendenhall left the Illinois Fighting Illini with a year of eligibility left in 2007, for the NFL Draft, Illinois suffered the next year. Aside from that whole "planes cannot take down a building" tweets of idiocy and the sponsorship pullout that followed, things have gone pretty well for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Mendenhall.
But for the two years that followed, the running game suffered in Champaign. They struggled to find both offensive balance and an heir to 'Shard. Until last year when Mikel Leshoure, wearing the same jersey #5, and also in his junior season grabbed the position and broke almost all of those big time single season school rushing records that Mendenhall had just broke in 2007. Leshoure left school early just like 'Shard and was also a high round NFL draft pick.
What does 2011 hold? Hopefully, history doesn't repeat.
"With Coach Petrino, we'll always be able to run the ball, I don't think it's something he worries about," Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said of Illinois Offensive Coordinator Paul Petrino.
"Right now you could say that the position is wide open, with the guys coming back and the freshmen coming in. Whoever wants it, go get it, someone should want it, because there's some real good linemen blocking in front of him," Petrino said at the end of spring practice.
"Someone's going to get a 1,000 yards this year, we just don't know who it is yet. Got to find out who that main guy is going to be."
The front-runner is obviously Jason Ford, who has by far the most experience of any running back on the roster. He's also been named to the Doak Walker watch list, honoring the nation's best RB. Troy "Bucket of Hair" Pollard (who has kind of a Daniel Dufrene skill set and running style) will be the second string, with Bud Golden and Ian Days filling in at 3rd and 4th string.
Petrino spoke of Ford's ability:
"We have a long pre-fall camp, it's not like you have to go play a game, we lots of scrimmages, so we'll have a feel for what he can do. The film is their resume, I have to see what plays they do best and when I can count on him in key situations."
Petrino wasn't able to do this in spring because Ford and Pollard were injured for most of it. That's the #1 concern with Ford, his durability. If he can stay healthy, he could be great. Also too many of his breakout games have come versus the Indiana Hoosiers and mid-major college football teams. He needs to step up against the big boys. 2010 was a step in the right direction as he had 91 yards versus Michigan and three TDs versus Northwestern. He also averaged almost 5 yards per carry and about half a G in rushing yards on the season.
"A year ago at this time, I would have said Jason Ford was going to be the guy. He got knicked a little bit and Mikel worked really hard in the sumemr and once he got going he had a great year," Head Coach Ron Zook said after the spring game.
'He learned how to be a leader, how to work. There's no question in my mind that Jason Ford could be a great back."
Remember, this is the school of Red Grange the greatest rusher, and overall player in college football history. Therefore, expectations are high.
Paul M. Banks is CEO of The Sports Bank.net, an official Google News site that generates millions of unique visitors. He’s also a regular contributor to Chicago Now, Walter Football.com, Yardbarker, and Fox Sports You can follow him on Twitter
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