Troy Pollard, Jay Prosch Add to Illini RB Depth

While Illinois’ rushing offense has remained dominant, the Illini are doing it by committee this year rather then relaying on one dominant runner like they did in 2007 (Rashard Mendenhall) and 2010 (Mikel Leshoure). Four different Illini have over 200 rushing yards on the season, and all four have scored at least one rushing TD.

Senior RB Troy Pollard (a runner in the Daniel Dufrene, Rocky Harvey mold) leads the Illini ground attack with a team-high 260 yards on only 25 carries (10.4 ypc). A fifth-year senior, Pollard (nicknamed “Bucket of hair” for obvious reasons) ran for a career-high 133 yards on 14 attempts (9.5 ypc) last week against Western Michigan, marking his second 100-yard effort in the last three games (101 vs. South Dakota State on 9/10).

He provides the “lightning” in the “thunder and lightning” type backfield approach. Freshman Donovonn Young is the thunder.

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Donovonn Young Might Continue Illini #5 Running Back Tradition

Given the recent tradition/memories of the last two players to wear the famed #5 in Champaign: Mikel Leshoure (a Detroit Lions rookie who will miss the season with an injury) and the Pittsburgh Steelers Rashard Mendenhall (who’s developed into a Pro Bowl, 1,000 yard rusher style NFL back) it’s easy to see why the jersey number is starting to take on a special meaning for Illinois Fighting Illini football.

The orange and blue #5 is developing into a new, stellar tradition in college football and Donovonn Young is the next in line for the Illini.

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#22/#18 Arizona State Sun Devils vs. Illinois Fighting Illini: Brutally Honest Game Preview

Illini Need Wide Receiver Ryan Lankford to Develop Into Third Option

Illinois Fighting Illini WR Ryan Lankford was the team’s most improved player this spring practice session. But he didn’t have a catch on Saturday in the big 33-15 win over Arkansas State. Someone preferably Lankford needs to become Illinois’ third option.

Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase threw for a career-best 267 yards. His 16 completions went to A.J. Jenkins, who had 11 catches for 148 yards and a touchdown, and Darius Millines, who caught five balls for 119 yards and a score.

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Illinois Fighting Ilini Season Preview: Offense

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Last year the Illinois Fighting Illini got a bowl win for the first time since 1999, a 38-14 drubbing of Baylor in Houston that kind of resembled their last bowl win, a 63-21 destruction of Virginia. The offense got very hot down the stretch last season, so hot that the unit set new records for points scored and total points.

This year QB Nathan Scheelhaase is up for the Maxwell Award, and the dual threat quarterback made huge strides towards the end of last year. He completed his first 12 passes (including all in the first half) of the Texas Bowl, and tossed just 1 interception in his final 7 games. He set a school record for rushing yards by a QB (858) and had a very solid 17-8 TD-INT ratio. The redshirt freshman no doubt benefited greatly form the extra practices that comes along with bowl prep.

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Jason Ford Needs to be Illini Football BMOC

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?

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#38 Illinois Fighting Illini: College Football 77 in 77

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If there’s one thing I know in life, it’s that Illinois college football never ever conforms to your expectations. No one saw their two BcS appearances coming (2001, 2007); and since they followed both seasons up with sub .500 choking, both these bowl appearances are now looked upon as fluky. Whenever Illinois has been predicted to do well (2000, 2002, 2008, 2009) they fell flat on their faces. And their bowl wins (last year, 1999) come in seasons when everyone predicts them to finish near the Big Ten basement.

And I know a lot about this stuff.

My first ever sports memory was their destruction at the hands of UCLA in the 1984 Rose Bowl. I attended my first Illini game in 1991. In addition to covering the team for the school paper when I was in school there, two of my older siblings went to UI. In other words, it’s “my team,” and one of the three teams I cover regularly. So I know this stuff! And I’m excited to finally reach my team in the 77 in 77 (after all, Illini legend Red Grange, the greatest player the game has ever known) partially inspired this segment.

So where will the Illinois Fighting Illini finish this season?

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Illini Running Back Situation: Who takes over for Mikel Leshoure?

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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.

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Allen (Notre Dame), Clay (Wisconsin) and LeShoure (Illinois) named to Doak Walker List

Mendenhall, Pierre Thomas Making Illinois Running Back U. (sort of)

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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.

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Pierre Thomas is Just Plain Better than Reggie Bush

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By Paul M. Banks

Among Saints RBs, the un-drafted free agent is playing vastly superior to 2006’s #2 overall pick.

The New Orleans Saints offense has been RIDONKOLOUS this season, averaging a NFL best 40 points per game. The next closest team is the Indianapolis Colts and they’re a whopping ten points per game behind. The Saints offense is also naturally number one in yardage, and they rank 6th in passing. Drew Brees and his high powered air attack often come to mind first, but it’s actually the ground game where the Saints are truly heavenly: New Orleans is currently 3rd in rushing. And the backfield’s big star is the highly touted Heisman trophy winner with the flashy reality star girlfriend, right?

WRONG! It’s his “back-up,” the undrafted afterthought from the south suburbs of Chicago that no one thought would even make the team.
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Take a look at Pierre Thomas’s numbers this season: 56 carries, 314 yards, 5.6 yards per carry average, 3 TDs. Now take a look at Bush’s: 45 carries, 175 yards, 3.9 ypc, and 1 TD. Bush is listed as the starter, but Thomas is (deservedly) getting more work. Well, you might argue that Bush’s strength is pass-catching, but Thomas has him beat there too with a better yards per catch on both the season and in career averages.

Also, take a look at career rushing numbers. Thomas- 237, 1191, 13, 5.0 yards per attempt, Bush- 463, 1725, 15, 3.7. Since they’re running behind the exact same offensive line, I think we know who should truly be “starting”.

Is it any wonder Reggie Bush is much more known for his reality “star,” famous-for-doing-absolutely-nothing-of-value girlfriend Kim Kardashian than he is for his game?

Aside from having one good pass catching year (his rookie season of ’06), he’s done next to nothing in the NFL, but still has a $12 million a year contract. Because of those facts, you could say he’s been a bigger bust than…insert your own joke about his insipid celebutante significant other here. And perhaps motivation is the problem with Bush. He already has the money and the women, so maybe he doesn’t care about working hard to obtain anything else?

The journey from college to the NFL could not have been more different for NOLA’s two tailbacks. Bush came in with more hype than a summer event movie, and emerged from the nation’s most dominant program, USC. Although picked 2nd, he was expected to be #1 overall while Pierre Thomas went undrafted out of Illinois, a program which has been among the worst in all of FBS for most of this decade. Look no further than the 2008 Rose Bowl, where USC slaughtered Illinois 49-17, to figure out who had the pub working for them in their college days. In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that Thomas attended the same alma mater as this author, and grew up pretty close to where I did. He prepped at Thornton Fractional South, a rival SICA Conference school in Lansing, IL. So I know his roots well. illinois_pierre_thomas_sm

And Thomas’ humble beginnings are probably a big part of his desire to succeed, and that drive is making him a much more productive player than the “can’t miss” prospect.  Thomas’ 5.6 ypc is 6th in the NFL, his former Illini teammate Rashard Mendenhall is 7th at 5.4. Very ironic; a program which has been the worst in the Big Ten much of this decade has produced two of the NFL’s top runners this season.

When the Saints take on Atlanta Monday night (Notice I did not use the “when the Saints march in” expression, I didn’t want to torture you by repeating one of the most shopworn phrases incessantly spewed by the laziest of journalist hacks) it will be Thomas, not Bush who sets the pace on offense.

The Illini may be Alright this Year

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By Paul M. Banks

This past weekend, the University of Illinois Fighting Illini got some measure of redemption from their week one DISASTER in St. Louis. The Illini responded from their 37-9 thrashing at the hands of Missouri to rout FCS opponent Illinois St. 45-17 in Champaign. Granted it was against a lower tier team predicted to finish near the bottom of their vastly inferior conference, but the Illini did without the services of arguably their three if not best, most important, players: QB Juice Williams, WR Arrelious Benn, and LB Martez Wilson. Williams, a Chicago native who’s been tutored by another Chicago product and star quarterback, Donovan McNabb contributed just one series before getting hurt. His injury is not supposed to be extremely serious and his return is key, for the Illini to have a legitimate leader.

Williams spoke about what he learned from working with McNabb. “Keep your head…a majority of quarterbacks know that when things start going on around them, people start talking, things start to tank. It’s just the quarterback mentality to let everything go and just stay focused and go from there, once you start paying attention to everything negative going on around you, you kind of lose sight of what you’re trying to do, so I just block everything out and just go,” Williams stated.

His top-flight receiver in a highly heralded corps is Arrelious “Rejus” Benn, a projected top ten pick in the NFL Draft. But his stock is falling because Rejus has been a total non-factor so far. The Illini receivers have been extremely hyped, and if Benn isn’t 100% healthy then other players like Jeff Cumberland, Jarred Fayson, and Tight End Michael Hoohoomanawananuii (have fun with trying to pronounce that) will need to step up big time. illinois

Illini Head Coach Ron Zook also needs to realize who his starting tailback is. It should be Daniel Dufrene, with Jason Ford as a capable back-up, not the other way around. They’ve battled some injuries as well this young season, so they fit right in with the rest of the team.

On the other side of the ball, it comes down to another well-recruited Chicago product, Martez Wilson, who moves over to Middle Linebacker, and needs to be the “quarterback” of the defense.

“The last two, actually the last three years, our Mike linebacker has led the Big Ten in tackles,” Zook said. “I don’t want to put the pressure on him that he’s not doing a good job if he doesn’t lead the Big Ten in tackles, but he’s a guy that a lot of things revolve around him, with our calls and so forth, and it’s going to be important that he has the kind of year that we think he can.” Wilson was also hurt and missed the last game. But Illinois won in impressive fashion, despite all the key missing pieces, which is a good sign. It’s also a good thing they have this week off- to get ready and healthy for mighty Ohio St. on September 26th.