Assuming the Position: Breaking Down the Fighting Illini Running Backs

Writing Illini’s second installment of its football position breakdowns examines the Illinois backfield, which should be the strong point of the team during the upcoming season.

In 2009 Illinois was third in the Big Ten and 25th in the nation in rushing offense, and in 2010 the backs look to be even better with the return of experienced junior running backs Mikel Leshoure (pictured left) and Jason Ford (pictured right).

Given last year’s numbers and this year’s young and inexperienced group of quarterbacks, Illinois will surely rely heavily on its talented running game for much production throughout the season.

The key will be for the Illini passing game to be respectable enough to prevent defenses from crowding the line of scrimmage against the Illinois rushing attack.

One-Two Punch

Leshoure and Ford form Illinois’ dynamic junior rushing duo.  

In 2009 Leshoure led the Illini in rushing yards with 734 on 108 carries, and Ford was second with 588 yards on 97 rushes.

While those numbers might not be eye-catching by themselves, Leshoure and Ford’s yards per carry were very impressive.

Leshoure averaged 6.8 yards per carry and Ford 6.1 yards per carry, which were the top two averages in the Big Ten (and the 6th and 31st in the nation respectively).

Leshoure and Ford’s combined yards (1,322) as sophomores undoubtedly would have been higher had they not been sharing the rock with senior Daniel Dufrene (69 carries, 277 yards last season) and quarterback Juice Williams (143 rushes, 507 yards last season), who was second in the team in carries behind Leshoure .

Heading into 2010, Leshoure has emerged as the premier back, with Ford not far behind.

Leshoure has the edge speed-wise, but Ford has the strength to run over defenders.

Together the two promise to make each game worth watching.

The Return of the Fullback

When Illinois adopted the spread offense, it did away with the fullback position.

With new offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, Illinois is turning to a more traditional pro-style offense, thus bringing the fullback position back to the Illini depth chart.

Illinois did not have any fullbacks on its roster at the conclusion of the 2009 season, so players have been moved to this position, as detailed below in the fullback depth chart.

The Running Back Depth Chart

Opening Day Starter: #5 Mikel Leshoure

Year: Junior

Height / Weight: 6’-0” / 230 lbs

Collegiate Game Experience: 20 games (13 Big Ten), 4 starts

Career Rushing Statistics: 143 rushes for 860 yards (6.0 yards per carry)

Career Rushing Touchdowns: 6 (5 as a sophomore, 1 as a freshman)

Longest Career Rush: 70 yards (2009)

Career 100 Yard Rushing Games: 3

Career Receiving Statistics: 20 catches for 243 yards (12.15 yards per reception)

Career Receiving Touchdowns: 2

Leshoure grew up in Champaign and played for Champaign Centennial High School, where he was rated the 28th best running back in the nation by Rivals.com.

He missed the latter half of his freshman season (2008) due to injury.

Leshoure had a breakout game in the 2009 season finale against Fresno State, running for 184 yards on 11 carries, an astounding 16.7 yards per carry, and scoring two rushing touchdowns and another touchdown on a 22-yard pass.

He also ran for more than 100 yards against Purdue (122 yards) and Michigan (150) last season.

The Backup Plan: #21 Jason Ford

Year: Junior

Height / Weight: 6’-0” / 235 lbs

Collegiate Game Experience: 24 games (16 Big Ten), 10 starts

Career Rushing Statistics: 178 rushes for 882 yards (4.95 yards per carry)

Career Rushing Touchdowns: 12 (4 as a sophomore, 8 as a freshman)

Longest Career Rush: 79 yards (2009)

Career 100 Yard Rushing Games: 3

Career Receiving Statistics: 20 catches for 207 yards (10.35 yards per reception)

Career Receiving Touchdowns: 0

Ford has played in every game since joining the Fighting Illini in 2008.

While inconsistent at times, he had an explosive game against Indiana in 2008, when he ran for 172 yards on 19 attempts.

Last season Ford ran for more than 100 yards twice (137 yard on 10 carries against Illinois State, and 128 yards on 12 carries against Michigan).

The Third Stringer: #28 Troy Pollard

Year: Redshirt Junior

Height / Weight: 5’-8” / 190 lbs

Collegiate Game Experience: 20 games (12 Big Ten), 1 start

Career Rushing Statistics: 40 carries for 252 yards (6.3 yards per carry)

Career Rushing Touchdowns: 1 (2008)

Longest Career Rush: 31 yards (2007)

Career 100 Yard Rushing Games: 0 (Did rush for 92 yards against Syracuse in 2007)

Career Receiving Statistics: 5 catches for 29 yards

Career Receiving Touchdowns: 0

Pollard has been plagued by injuries throughout his career. He played three games before suffering a season ending injury in 2007, but was allowed a medical redshirt.

Pollard returned for the 2008 season, but was once again sidelined by an injury during the Western Michigan game.

He has seen a lot of action as a return man and is expected to contribute more in that phase of the game than as a running back this season.

Now-and-Then

The following Illini players are running backs who are active members of the team, but are not expected to see action on the field this year. An asterisks by the player’s name denotes that they are available to redshirt the season should the coaches choose for them to do so.

#23 Bud Golden

#27 Ronald Steward*

The Fullback Depth Chart

Opening Day Starter: #41 Zach Becker

Year: Junior

Height / Weight: 6’-3” / 250 lbs

Collegiate Game Experience: 23 games (16 Big Ten), 0 starts

Career Rushing Statistics: 0 carries for 0 yards.

Career Receiving Statistics: 1 reception for 2 yards and a touchdown.

Becker walked on at Illinois in 2008.

He has had limited roles as both a tight end and on defensive special teams.

Becker most likely will split time between tight end and fullback, but he is likely to start as a blocking back due to the lack of experienced players at that position.

In a recent episode of Under the Helmet, Becker discussed his thoughts on the 2010 season.

The Backup Plan: #34 Greg Fuller

Year: Redshirt Freshman

Height / Weight: 6’-1” / 240 lbs

Collegiate Game Experience: None

Fuller attended Thornton Township High School in Harvey, Illinois, and redshirted the 2009 season.

The Third Stringer: #35 Jay Prosch

Year: Freshman

Height / Weight: 6’-0” / 250 lbs

Collegiate Game Experience: None

Prosch played middle linebacker at UMS-Wright High School in Mobile, Alabama.

He was rated as a two-star recruit by scout.com.

Some Thoughts on the Illini Running Game

Without question, the running game should be a major strength for Illinois this year, even if the fullbacks have no collegiate experience at the position.

On paper, the running back position is the strongest it has been since 2007 Big Ten Player of the Year Rashard Mendenhall led Illinois to the Rose Bowl.

New Illini running backs coach DeAndre Smith has coached seven 1,000-yard rushers during his 11 years of coaching.

With the talent he has available, that number could increase to 9 by the end of the 2010.

With three returning starters on the offensive line, the running backs should get the blocking they need to be the driving force behind the Illinois offense.

Writing Illini Projection

No longer obscure underclassmen, Leshoure and Ford will certainly have the attention of opposing defenses.

This added attention will lower both players’ yards per carry averages, but not stop them from having strong seasons.

Leshoure will pass 1,200 yards for the season and Ford will develop into Zook’s go-to third down back.

Becker will make a relatively seamless transition to fullback, and Illinois will move up to second in Big Ten rushing behind Penn State.

Preseason Running Back’s Grade: A

The run game, led by Leshoure and Ford, has both the talent and experience to dominate opponent defenses and take some pressure off redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who will have some time to develop the passing game.

While Leshoure and Ford have a lot of responsibility on their shoulders, they should have no problem living up to the hype this season.

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Tags: Bud Golden DeAndre Smith Football Greg Fuller Illinois Fighting Illini Football Illinois Football Jason Ford Jay Prosch Justin Green Mikel Leshoure Nathan Scheelhaase Paul Petrino Rashard Mendenhall Ron Zook Ronald Stewart Troy Pollard Zach Becker

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