What we Learned from Fighting Illini Football Spring Game

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A small select group of things are certain in life- death, taxes, and Fighting Illini football seasons ending up much different than what you expected in the preseason. Last year’s team wasn’t expected to really do much- Yet the finished 7-6 (despite a very difficult schedule) and with a quite decisive bowl victory.

Conversely, in ’08 and ’09, expectations were sky-high heading into September, yet both of those teams flopped (and that’s putting it nicely). So what about this year? Expectations are kind of mixed, “up in the air” you might say as this year’s squad competes to become the first team to reach back-to-back bowl games since 1992.

And that’s fitting, because the 20th anniversary of the 1988-92 teams that made five consecutive bowl games will both be celebrated during the weekend festivities. If Red Grange and Robert Zuppke presided over the “Golden Years,” of Illini college football, then surely the Jeff George/Jason Verduzco/John Mackovic teams were the “silver era” of the program’s history.

That said, let’s begin the journey this fall to finding out whether or not this team will match the ’92 squad’s accomplishment.

By Paul M. Banks

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Fighting Illini Spring Football Game Preview

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Now that Mikel Leshoure left the Illini early for the NFL Draft, (and who can blame him really? He will be one of the first three running backs taken next week) Illinois college football is now headlined by sophomore QB Nathan Scheelhaase. It’s his team. And if he continue to makes strides like he did from the season finale to the Texas Bowl, things will be fine.

The 15 extra practices between the Fresno State loss and the 38-14 domination over Baylor did wonders for Scheelhaase as he completed his first 13 passes, played his best game of the season, and easily could have been co-MVP with Leshoure in that game. Even though Leshoure’s game was really quite special.

Something to really keep an eye on Saturday is Scheelhaase continuing to develop chemistry with wide receivers Ryan Lankford and Darius Millines.

But you won’t get to see the heir apparent to Leshoure at the tailback position. Jason Ford will not go Saturday.

By Paul M. Banks

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Illini Tailback Situation Part 1- Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure

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By Paul M. Banks

Heading into this season the talk about the Illinois Fighting Illini program, certainly offensively at least, was about the passing game; and the stellar group of receivers that were allegedly one of the best position groups in the nation. There were lots of questions about the defense and the running game- the latter of which took a big step backward last year. Illinois lead the Big Ten in rushing in ’06 and ’07.

But after Saturday’s phantasmagoria, no one’s raving about Juice Williams and Arrelious Benn anymore, the defense seems even worse than anyone’s lowest expectations, and the tailback situation is more unresolved than ever.

The Illini truly have a rotation of four guys at the position, with no real bonafide starter. The depth chart hierarchy is far from established. The injury bug bit both Daniel Dufrene and Jason Ford, the two guys who shared starting duties last season. Dufrene dressed in St. Louis, but didn’t play. Ford touched the ball once, as he nursed an ankle injury.jason-ford-690

Illini Head Coach Ron Zook has repeatedly said that you don’t need to have a legitimate number one/go-to-guy at the position, and that it’s perfectly fine to go with a “tailback by committee” approach. And in certain situations (say for instance you have solid depth and talent at almost every other position) that scenario could work. But with a total disaster within every component of the team Saturday, in a game in where the Illini were heavy favorites, finding a dependable and reliable ball-carrier would be a great place to start picking up the pieces. Illinois needs to show that the program can recover from the early departure of Rashard Mendenhall.

Here are two of the candidates that could try and play the same role that Mendenhall did in ’07.

Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure:

Sophomore Jason Ford (6-0, 230) isn’t exactly the headiest player or the most savvy of veterans, but he does have plenty of experience, and a ESPN College Gamenight “Helmet Sticker” to his credit, from when he rushed 19 times for 172 yards and 3 TDs versus Indiana last season. Unfortunately, that was the only good game he had in 2008, as he averaged just 3.6 yards per carry on the season. Ford, from Belleville, Illinois chose the Illini over Iowa.  At Illini Media Day, Ford gave the standard company line response about the Illinois tailback situation. “All of us, our goal is to try and become the main guy, but if it’s running back by committee, we’ll just be happy for whoever gets the most carries.”

Ford was a little bit more insightful and interesting when discussing the role of each back in this offense. “Me and Mikel, we’re kind of like I guess you could say the power backs. Troy (Pollard) and Daniel (Dufrene) are like the little scat backs, who could break the home run. So we got it all,” he said. Ford did score eight touchdowns last season, but almost all of them were from 2 yards or less. He did break off a 41-yarder against Indiana, but he’s much better suited to run in-between the tackles, and in short-yardage situations. His homecoming to the St. Louis area was an extremely disappointing one, as he carried just once for zero yards, and the Illini got throttled 37-9 by a Missouri team in severe re-building mode.
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Fellow sophomore and inside runner Mikel LeShoure (6-0, 225) ears Mendenhall’s number, but has yet to display his level of production or talent. However, he has plenty of potential. “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 said at Illini Media Day. If he does become the one to finally fill the Mendenhall void, perhaps it will be later in the season. “Shard did take over the 2nd half of the season, and I’m sure all four of us want to be that guy,” he said. LeShoure saw the bulk of the carries Saturday, and also caught 3 passes for 41 yards, finishing second on the team in both categories for the afternoon.

One could expect his career arc to develop similar to Ford’s. “Last year we had kind of the same thing, we had a 3 man rotation, even though we were freshmen, we had a role in the offense. Both of us are really more experienced now, we got a better understanding of the offense. We can just play without having to think too much, which is going to make a big difference in how we play,” Mikel said about his connection with Ford.

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