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?
Illinois needs to find a "Champaign Supernova" (yes, I did just quote the mid '90s Beatles impersonating Brit-rock band) to be that star tailback and bulk carrier.
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.
"Jason understands that this is his last year, and this summer he's made every one of his runs. That's the first time he's done that," Coach Ron Zook said.
"Jason's had a very good camp so far. His weight wasn't down to exactly where we wanted it. But his percent of body fat is down, and he's stronger. And his weight is down from where it was, just not down to the initial number we wanted," Zook continued.
Quoting the same Oasis song, "how many special people change?"
Ford, just like Leshoure last year, is taking conditioning and streamlining his body very seriously.
The coaching staff would like to have him around 232-233, he's above that right now, but he's still under 240. And of course muscle is heavier than fat, so that must be factored into the equation.
"I just want to keep working hard throughout the summer. I’m better conditioned, I’ve lost some weight. I just want to keep doing what I could in the offense. I still played a lot last year and did some good things," Ford said.
He has some additional specific goals.
"Get stronger and more flexible. Usually nobody wants to hit me up high. They go for my shins or ankles," he said.
Because he's such a load, most tacklers only go low on him to stop his low center of gravity. Ford hasn't had a lot of serious injuries, but he's had plenty of nagging injuries. He'll need to stay 100% healthy if Illinois is going to make a run at the conference championship game. And if he does become that feature back, the Illini could have a special season. It could be the first time that the University of Illinois has ever won two bowl games in a row.
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
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