Running Back Quartet Continues Illinois' Strong Rushing Traidition

Junior RB Daniel Dufrene
Junior RB Daniel Dufrene

Oct. 23, 2008

by Sarah Fitzpatrick, Illinois Sports Information

Halfway through the 2008 season, the question heard most often - "Who will replace Rashard Mendenhall" - throughout the summer has been answered, not by one running back, but four. Running backs Daniel Dufrene (#22), Troy Pollard (#29), Mikel LeShoure (#5) and Jason Ford (#21) have kept the Fighting Illini among the Big Ten leaders in rushing offense, as the squad ranks second in the Big Ten and 21st nationally, averaging almost 205 yards per game heading into Saturday's game at Wisconsin.

"Right now, we have four running backs that we have been playing and we have been trying to get them regular playing time," assistant head coach and running backs coach Reggie Mitchell said. "Daniel Dufrene's the starter, and Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure are neck-and-neck as the second guy. And now that Troy Pollard's healthy, he's in the mix, too."

Dufrene has showed great versatility so far this season, averaging 104 all-purpose yards per game. He recorded a career-high 126 rushing yards against Louisiana-Lafayette Sept. 13 two weeks after catching a career-high six passes out of the backfield against Missouri.

But he likely garnered the most attention in Illinois' 45-20 romp at Michigan on Oct. 4 when he took a screen pass from Juice Williams 57 yards to the end zone for his second receiving touchdown of the season.

Dufrene became part of the Fighting Illini family after taking a somewhat circuitous route. The junior from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., originally enrolled at Vanderbilt, but quickly felt out of place. After spending time with his cousin, Reynaldo Hill, who played for Illinois head coach Ron Zook at Florida and was with the Tennessee Titans, Dufrene realized he needed to make a move.

So he transferred to College of the Sequoias in California, where he rushed for 750 yards and nine touchdowns with limited carries. While his statistics didn't turn many heads, it was his speed that got Mitchell interested in Dufrene, who was able to enroll at Illinois in January, 2007 with three seasons of eligibility remaining.

According to Mitchell, Dufrene possesses explosive speed, which he has put on full display at least a few times during his Illini career. Most recently, Dufrene sliced through the Michigan defense on his way to the end zone on the screen pass, and he also burst away from top-ranked Ohio State last November on an 80-yard run that set up Illinois' first touchdown of that game.

But Dufrene isn't the only running back carrying the ball in the Illini backfield. Leshoure and Ford both have seen action, as has Pollard despite battling nagging injuries that followed his recovery from knee surgery.

"It takes off a lot of pressure," Dufrene said, "because I'm confident that if I go down, they can step in and are capable of doing the same thing."

Sophomore RB Troy Pollard

"Mikel and Jason, and even to some extent Troy Pollard, who played a little bit last year but then got injured, they're are all new," Mitchell commented. "I'm just hoping that they get better week in and week out. So far, I've been really pleased with the progress they've been making."

Pollard, a redshirt-freshman, played in three games during the 2007-08 season prior to suffering a season-ending knee injury. The 5-8, 180-pound running back took a medical redshirt after sustaining his injury. Pollard spent the remainder of the season and the offseason working hard to get healthy for the 2008-09 season.

"Being injured was pretty tough," said Pollard. "I kept getting down, but the coaches and trainers picked me up and kept me in high spirits."

That encouragement paid off against Eastern Illinois, when Pollard cut through the Panther defense on a 25-yard touchdown scamper, the first of his career. He punctuated it with a flying shoulder bump with Zook, thanking the coaches for sticking with him during his medical setbacks.

Mitchell notes that Pollard's feel for the inside and outside zones is a great strength and will help him be successful on the field this season. Pollard also credits his vision and ability to cut back and make a defender miss as strengths that set him apart from his teammates.

Also in rotation with Dufrene and Pollard is Ford, who hasn't wasted any time finding the end zone in the Orange and Blue. In his first Big Ten game, at Penn State, Ford plunged across the goal line on a one-yard touchdown dive that gave the Illini an early 7-0 lead. He followed that up with a two-yard touchdown plunge that pushed Illinois' lead to 31-14 at Michigan. Then, most recently, he punished the Indiana defense last Saturday night for 172 yards on 19 carries.

Freshman RB Jason Ford

"It felt good playing at the `Big House' for the first time," said Ford. "Shutting down the crowd of blue (with a touchdown) was really exciting."

Two of Ford's strengths are explosive speed and leaping ability, which have been utilized mostly in short-yardage situations so far this season. He concurs with Dufrene that having a backfield full of capable runners will be a positive for the Illini.

"It's good knowing that they have my back," Ford said. "We are all good running backs, so if one goes down another can step in."

A Champaign native, Leshoure also is accepting his share of the workload. The 6-0, 240-pound bruiser had the first rushing touchdown of his career at Michigan.

"It felt good to finally get one in," Leshoure. "In high school, I used to get touchdowns all the time, so it was a grind for me this year until I finally got one."

Leshoure has posted some solid performances in limited action so far, rushing for 23 yards on three carries and catching two passes for 26 yards at Penn State. He also had eight carries for 21 yards against Louisiana-Lafayette a week after rushing for a career-high 49 yards against Eastern Illinois.

"Mikel is a big kid with good feet who runs with good pad level," Mitchell said.

In addition to his ball-carrying duties, Leshoure uses that pad level to get himself on the field in blocking situations.

Freshman RB Mikel LeShoure

"I've been learning to do a lot more blocking than I did in high school," he said. "It's not just all about running now. You have to pick up more blitzes."

When asked about his teammates' strengths, Leshoure responded that they all have unique talents.

"Troy has really good vision, Daniel has a lot of speed, and Jason has a lot of power," Leshoure said.

Leshoure also echoed his teammates in regards to their rotation at running back.

"When you're not the main person and don't have to be the go-to guy, it's stress-free because you have someone who can come in to help you out if you are down or you make a mistake," Leshoure said. "It's great to have people that can step in and perform in different situations."

As Illinois has shown in all three previous seasons under Zook, the running game is a priority regardless of who handles the ball. Whether it's a system that employs a primary runner like Mendenhall in 2007 or the four-wheel system in use this season with the quartet of running backs, the Fighting Illini should continue to be one of the best rushing teams, not only in the Big Ten, but also in the nation.