By Paul M. Banks
It hasn’t been the greatest season for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but it has been a very productive campaign for the man who usurped Willie Parker as starting tailback. This year Rashard Mendenhall is living up to the lofty expectations he had as a first round draft pick in 2008. The Skokie native and University of Illinois product is in the NFL’s top ten in both yardage and yards per carry.
His work has inspired current Illinois starting tailback Mikel LeShoure, who also wears Mendenhall’s jersey #5. Like Mendenhall, LeShoure took over the starting tailback job in Champaign towards the end of his sophomore season. “When Mike Locksley was recruiting me, he was telling me that if Rashard was going to the NFL, which they thought he would, then I would get my same high school number. Turns out it worked out that way,” LeShoure told me earlier this season. “As a committee, we’re replacing a really good running back in Rashard. And this has been a really good running back school. We feel like we have got shoes to fill, after a running back like that.”
Rashard’s former Illinois teammate, Pierre Thomas is currently second in the NFL in yards per carry, and Ever since the final game of his rookie year, when Pierre got his first NFL start in his hometown of Chicago; his career has been on the upswing. That day Thomas became the first Saints player to gain over 100 yards both rushing and receiving in the same game. Today, he’s the feature back in the most explosive offense in the game today. He’s the focal point in one of the exciting ground games the NFL has seen in recent memory and will likely join Mendenhall in accomplishing a thousand yard rushing season this year.
With ‘Shard and Thomas producing numbers like these, is Illinois now the premier running back school? “I keep in tune with what those guys are doing. Pierre and Rashard are both playing really, really good right now. Coach talks about that, you know? He says if we go out and we do what we’ve got to do, we can be in those guys’ shoes too. They’ve (Thomas and Mendenhall) kind of given us the example of how to get there and how to do it,” LeShoure said.
Here are some other Illini running backs that went to on to make some noise in the pros. Sorry, you won’t see Rocky Harvey, Jameel Cook, Ty Douthard, Carey Davis or Jason Davis on this list.
Robert Holcombe- The school’s all-time leading rusher had a fine seven year career as a fullback. In 1999, Holcombe won a Super Bowl with the St. Louis Rams. He played four seasons for the Rams and led the way for NFL MVP Marshall Faulk. Finshed with just over a 1,100 career yards and 14 TDs.
Howard Griffith- He ran for 8 touchdowns in the 1990 win over SIU. Record still stands to this day. He also converted to fullback in the pros. With the Denver Broncos, Griffith won 2 Super Bowl rings, and scored two rushing touchdowns in Super Bowl XXXIII. Howard earned the nickname The Human Plow due to his extremely successful blocking for Terrell Davis. After an 11 year NFL career, Howard went into broadcasting and is currently now a Big Ten Network studio analyst.
Keith Jones- Had some decent games with the Atlanta Falcons in 1980s.
Red Grange- In 2008, he was named the greatest college football player of all time by ESPN. He was to pro football what Babe Ruth was to Major League Baseball, and the inspiration for John Krasinski’s character in “Leatherheads”. He earned All-America recognition three consecutive years, and appeared on the October 5, 1925, cover of Time. His number 77 was retired at the University of Illinois in 1925. It remains one of only two retired numbers in the history of University of Illinois football, the other being the number 50 (Dick Butkus.) This is the bar for Illini running backs. Rashard and Pierre may easily be able to have the second greatest pro career an ex-Illini ever accomplished, but until one of them becomes a living legend, they won’t unseat the “Galloping Ghost” or “Wheaton Ice Man” as #1.