- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Illinois junior Mikel Leshoure watches enough football to know that the era of the workhorse running back is more or less over.
You won't see many more backs like Terrell Davis in the pros or Marcus Allen in the college ranks.
"Not only college, but the NFL, too, it's a tough game, and it takes a pounding on your body," Leshoure said. "It's a long season, so it's real good to have at least one other back to split some carries with. And if you've got some other guys to step in and take some carries off of those two, that's even better."
Illinois' coaches believe they have enough players to share carries and not overburden one back. Head coach Ron Zook and new offensive coordinator Paul Petrino expect to use a committee system at running back this season.
Leshoure understands and accepts it, but he still wants to be the chairman of the committee.
"I definitely go into practice every day wanting to be the go-to guy," he recently told me. "If it's third-and-1, fourth-and-1, I want to be guy coach calls on to get it. And I want to be in the game in the fourth quarter."
Leshoure made a strong case to be Illinois' No. 1 back late last season, and he has continued to perform in preseason practice.
Few Big Ten running backs finished the 2009 season hotter than Leshoure. He recorded back-to-back 100-yard rushing performances against Purdue and Michigan, and had 76 rush yards on only 13 carries against Northwestern. Leshoure finished with a career-high 184 yards and two touchdowns on only 11 carries against Fresno State.
The late spurt vaulted Leshoure to sixth in the Big Ten in rushing yards by a running back (734). More impressive was the fact he had significantly fewer carries (108) than most Big Ten starters and averaged a whopping 6.8 yards per attempt. Leshoure received 15 or more carries just twice all season.
Most folks associated with Illinois' program couldn't wait for the season to end, as the team went 3-9. Leshoure, meanwhile, was just getting warmed up.
"Not only did I feel like I got stronger, but my confidence went up a lot," he said. "I just felt like I could come out and produce for this team. But at the same time, I'm a winner and so even though I had some good games, I would have rather won than to have had those games.
"I felt like seeing what I could accomplish just made my work ethic for the [offseason] a lot harder."
Leshoure trimmed 5-6 pounds from his frame and now checks in at 224. He also reduced his body fat to 4.2 percent.
"My stamina's is a lot better and I feel like I can be in the game a lot longer for my team," he said.
How many carries could he handle?
"I'd love to to see 20, 25 carries a game, if not more," Leshoure said.
Leshoure has been getting the first shot at running back in training camp, although he and classmate Jason Ford, who rushed for 588 yards on only 97 carries in 2009, both are working with the first-team offense. Junior Troy Pollard, sophomore Justin Green and redshirt Bud Golden are sharing time with the second- and third-teams.
The coaches have options, and they intend to use them. But Leshoure wants to make it tough for them to take him off the field.
"I understand where they’re coming from as far as running back-by-committee," he said. "They'll get people in when they need 'em or if I need a break, but I definitely want to be the guy."