Chicago Colleges: Mikel Leshoure
It sounded like a fun exercise. And for a little while, it was.
Pocic and Allen took great joy in reviewing the first six games from the past year. Illinois was winning and scoring points. Life was good.
Then Week 7 arrived. Cracks began to form as Illinois lost 17-7 to an Ohio State team that completed only one pass.
Pocic's and Allen's review session soon made them want to avert their eyes.
"It was really depressing," Pocic said. "All the great opportunities we had, especially after starting 6-0. Mostly I was trying to figure out what went wrong with the offensive line, with the running game, why we couldn't run the ball like we did with Mikel [Leshoure] the year before.
"It was hard to find a reason why certain things happened."
Illinois dropped six consecutive games after its record 6-0 start, and the offense bore the brunt of the struggles. After scoring 33 points or more in four of the first six games, including a combined 79 points in the first two weeks of Big Ten play, Illinois failed to tally more than 17 points during its six-game slide and finished three games with just seven points.
Even when Illinois ended its slide in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl against UCLA, it was hardly an offensive explosion (20 points).
The Illini finished the season ranked in the top 15 nationally in several major defensive categories, including points allowed and yards allowed. While the team had other problems, namely special teams, its evaporating offense was most disheartening.
"You get beat down a little bit when you struggle at the end of the year," Beatty said. "So you want to get some kind of swagger back. The only way to do that is to lay a good foundation as far as making some plays, getting a good knowledge base. Confidence comes with some success and knowing what you're doing.
"Those things, we're trying to build up because obviously, the last six games, there were some struggles."
When Beatty reviewed the final six regular-season games, he saw some issues along the offensive line and with the running game, and few consistent skill players aside from receiver A.J. Jenkins. But he also saw a group that lacked confidence.
"It's hard to have a swagger," quarterback Reilly O'Toole said, "with no points on the board."
The offense won't be able to light up the scoreboard until September, but spring practice has provided the platform to rebuild morale. Players like O'Toole and Pocic are excited about the multiple spread offense being installed.
Pocic said he's never been in such a complex offense. O'Toole said that while other Big Ten teams run spread offenses, Illinois' system will be unique in its flexibility and the number of angles from which the offense can attack.
"Unpredictable," wide receiver Darius Millines said of the new offense.
"We may run a play, and someone may think we're coming back with the same play, like a running play to the left. And we may play-action with it and throw deep over your head," he continued. "The defense has to be on their P's and Q's at all times."
And while the installation process is gradual and Illinois must build depth at running back, receiver and along the offensive line, there are mini-breakthroughs, like the one at Monday night's practice.
"We made some good plays and the offense was getting hyped, and we actually got rolling for a little bit," Millines said. "We actually felt how we felt in the beginning of last year. We got into a little rhythm, and our whole offense, we took that into consideration, that, 'OK, if we keep making plays, we can't be stopped.'"
INDIANAPOLIS -- We focused quite a bit Thursday on the Bears after news of coach Lovie Smith’s extension broke, with general manager Jerry Angelo holding court in his hotel room just a couple of hours later.
So today, let’s focus a bit more on some of the local prospects working out here at the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium.
We spoke with former Illinois linebacker Mikel Leshoure, a second-team all-American selection who rushed for a single-season school record 1,697 yards and 17 touchdowns, and was named Texas Bowl MVP after pounding Texas Tech for 187 yards and three TDs.
Here’s what Leshoure, a potential first-day pick, said during his time with the media at the combine.
Did you come in weighing less than your playing weight from the season?
Mikel Leshoure:I actually did. I had about six weeks of training down in McKinney, Texas, with Michael Johnson Performance. I came in about 230 and I weighed in today about 227 (Leshoure’s playing weight was 230 pounds).
Can less weight help with your time in the 40-yard dash?
Former Illinois running backs Pierre Thomas and Rashard Mendenhall have gone on to become successful in the NFL. Does their success give you hope about your potential NFL career?
ML: Definitely. I don't think it's any added pressure or anything like that to me. I feel like if I continue to do what I'm doing, and what I have done at the collegiate level, I'll be just fine. But for those guys to have the success that they did at the NFL is a plus to Illinois football, and the running backs that came out of there.
Do you think the scouts will take those guys into account when evaluating you?
ML: I think it will help; the running backs that have come out of Illinois and what they've done so far.
You rushed for a school-record 330 yards and two touchdowns against Northwestern at Wrigley Field. Was that the game that helped solidify your decision to declare for the draft early?
ML: I would say just that game, but overall I felt like I exceeded my expectations for the season as far as my stats and, also my team goals. One of my goals was to make it to a bowl game and win. I feel like I did that and I was blessed to get MVP of the game. And as a running back, the time's running. You've got to go when the iron's hot, and I felt like this was the best time for me.
Have the Bears or Packers shown interest in you?
ML: I haven't gotten any special attention from those two teams or any one-on-one visits with those guys, just the meetings that we had with the 32 teams yesterday. That was about it.
Would you say you’re a complete running back?
ML: I definitely feel like I'm a complete back. I feel like I can run, I can pass-block and I'm very confident with my hands, not only the short 5- and 10-yard routes, but I feel like I can beat some of the safeties and linebackers downfield. So me personally, I feel like I'm a complete back.
Do you think you can be the first back taken in April?
ML: Yes, I definitely think I can be the No. 1 back taken. That's my goal. Everyone has their own opinion. You hear a lot of different stuff and see a lot of different things on T.V. But with my versatility and the things I can bring to the table, it will show a lot of scouts and GMs that I can be their guy.
Would you rather juke a guy or run him over?
ML: It depends on how that guy's looking. You can look in his eyes and that will tell you a lot. I feel like I can do either one of those, and that's what makes me a different back. One of those guys might just have the quickness and can move, and another guy might have the power that can run him over. But I feel like I have a little bit of both.
Are you a smack talker?
ML: I've never been a smack talker. I do like to celebrate a little in the end zone and with my teammates, but I'm not the type of guy that goes out on the field and talks a lot of smack.
With character being such an issue with teams these days, how will you address questions about your character with these teams in interviews?
ML: I feel like I've grown as man from my first year to my junior year. I made some mistakes earlier in my collegiate career, but if you were to go act and talk to any of the coaches, from the strength and conditioning coach to the head coach about me, they'll tell you that I'm mature for my age and I've learned a lot from my mistakes. I'm a guy that they can count on and I'll be there for my team or my coaches.
Can you tell us a little more about the game against Northwestern?
ML: It was a good game. That game we had something to prove. Our coach [Ron Zook] came in that Monday of practice and told us a little quote that was said by the head coach [Pat Fitzgerald] of Northwestern. He called some of our guys a bunch of thugs and all of us would've gone to their school, but weren't academically eligible to do so. That fired us up. You could look in my guys' eyes, my teammates before that game started and you could tell that we all wanted it. We proved it that game.
You had some adversity growing up. Could you tell us about that?
ML: Growing up, I grew up without my father for about 16, 17 years of my life. It was just me and my mother [Jacqueline Jones]. I'm an only child, so it was just me and her. I learned a lot from that. I learned from an early age that I have to be the man of the house and take care of my mother and myself, and it taught me a lot of responsibility. It made me the man I am today.
So this has to be an exciting time for you and your mother, right?
ML: Definitely. It's been a dream of mine since I was a little boy. If you talk to my mom, she'll tell you that when I was little, I used to walk around with a Nerf football. So to finally get an opportunity at the biggest stage in football, it's a blessing and I just want to take advantage of it and work hard.
Why did you choose Illinois out of high school?
ML: I definitely had other options as far as which schools I wanted to go to. Unfortunately, I didn't take any other official visits, which I wish I would've done. It may have changed my decision. But I was happy with the decision I made. I was happy with my teammates, with the coaching staff. If I could go back and do it again, I would do everything the same.
Are there any running backs in the NFL you like right now in terms of rushing style?
ML: [Rams running back] Steven Jackson. I love the way he plays. He reminds me of myself. He's a big guy, but he's very versatile. He shows good hands and he shows toughness. He plays through injuries, and I feel like I can do all of those things.
Leshoure has until Jan. 15 to decide whether to return to the Illini for his senior season or enter the NFL draft. Leshoure declined an interview request, so it’s hard to say what he’s weighing his decision on, but here are some thoughts.
One possible reason to leave school early is his stock is hot. He rushed for 917 yards and 10 touchdowns in his last five games. He drew national attention with his school-record 330-yard performance against Northwestern at Wrigley Field and shined in Illinois’ win over Baylor in the Texas Bowl with 184 yards and three touchdowns.
Even if Leshoure returns, there’s no guarantee he would have a better season than 2010. He set Illinois’ season records with 1,697 rushing yards, 122 points, 20 touchdown and nine 100-yard games.
There is a chance Leshoure could take another step in his development as a senior. Outside of breaking Robert Holcombe’s career rushing record, Leshoure could be a Heisman Trophy sleeper. If Illinois were to contend for the Big Ten and Leshoure rushed in the vicinity of 2,000 yards, his name would have to be discussed.
ESPN NFL draft analyst Steve Muench took a long look at Leshoure in the Texas Bowl and saw him as potential third-round pick.
“I think he goes in the third round if he comes out, but again his timed speed will have an impact,” Muench said. “As far as coming out or staying, I always say that it's a personal decision, and I don't know his financial situation. But I think the more experience players get at the collegiate level the better, and he could greatly improve his stock by returning to school for another year and working on his weaknesses.”
Muench saw plenty of strengths and weaknesses when watching Leshoure.
“At 227 pounds, he has impressive lateral mobility and good burst,” Muench said. “For those looking for proof check out his 13-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. He’s also a willing pass-blocker, and he can catch the ball out of the backfield, but he is a bit unpolished. Leshoure lacks ideal instincts, and he gets caught dancing in the hole on occasion, so he leaves some yards on the field. He needs to work on his pass-blocking technique and snatching the ball out of the air instead of trapping it against his frame as well.
"To expand a little more, I would say scouts are going to want to see how well he runs. He appears quicker than fast on film. I’m also a little concerned about his awareness in pass protection. He takes a split second too long to locate pressure at times, and I think it makes him a little less aggressive. On the other hand, he has a great deal of upside. He runs hard, he is quick and, like I said, he has above average lateral mobility for a big back. His production down the stretch doesn’t hurt either.”
Leshoure is expected to meet with Illinois coach Ron Zook to discuss his future on Thursday, according to the Champaign News-Gazette. An announcement could be made sometime this week.
Here's a quick look at Illinois' 38-14 Texas Bowl win over Baylor on Wednesday night.
How the game was won: Illinois’ defense came to play. After allowing an average of 39.3 points and 429 yards over its last four games, the Illini’s defense stepped up its game and dominated Baylor throughout the first half. The Bears’ high-powered offense was held without a point on seven first-half possessions and only converted 1-of-4 third-down conversions in the first two quarters. While Illinois’ defense did its job, the Illini’s offense followed suit. Illinois scored on its first fours possessions with three Derek Dimke field goals and a Mikel Leshoure touchdown to give it a solid 16-0 advantage.
Turning point: It was only the sixth play of the day, but the game changed when Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III’s bubble screen pass was thrown backward and dropped, and Illinois’ Travon Bellamy recovered the ball and went 44 yards the other way. The Bears had been moving the ball with ease at that point and look destined for at least a field on the possession. Instead Illinois capitalized with a field goal, the Illini’s defense grew some confidence, and before you knew it Illinois had built a 24-0 lead.
Star of the game: Illinois junior running back Mikel Leshoure stole this honor in the second half from his teammate redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. Leshoure scored twice in the final two quarters to seal the win for the Illini. Leshoure finished with 183 rushing yards and three touchdowns. With his day, he surpassed Rashard Mendenhall’s school record for rushing yards and touchdowns in a season. The question now is whether Leshoure will enter the NFL draft early just as Mendenhall did after having a big day in the Rose Bowl in 2007.
Stat of the game: Illinois redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase completed all 13 of his pass attempts in the first half. He was 13 of 13 for 169 yards, which surpassed his total passing yards in eight of his games this season.
SportsCenter highlight of the game: Illinois freshman wide receiver Darius Millines’ second career reception is one he’ll never forget. Scheelhaase launched the ball 30 yards as Millines was crossing the middle of the field. Millines saw the pass, stopped, leaped higher than Baylor’s defensive back, snatched the ball in the air and held onto as he was fell backwards to the ground. Leshoure was second in the running when he went Superman over the goal line for his second touchdown.
What it means: This likely will save Illinois coach Ron Zook his job. A 7-6 record and a bowl win certainly looks more impressive than a 6-7 record and a bowl defeat. It would have been Zook’s fifth losing season in six years. Instead, he should be back, and the Illini could take a step up in the Big Ten next season with Scheelhaase and plenty of others back, even if Leshoure leaves for the NFL. For Baylor, it’s a tough defeat to swallow. The Bears looked dominant on their first drive, but didn’t return to that form until in the second half and it was too late. Like Illinois, Baylor is expected to bring back a lot of start power next year and could become a Big 12 contender, especially with the teams departing the conference.
Also, Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa and Illinois punter Anthony Santella made the coaches’ first team, while Illinois linebacker Martez Wilson and Northwestern wide receiver Jeremy Ebert made the media’s first team.
Read the entire story.
CHICAGO -- Go figure. Illinois turned a potential circus into a spectacle.
In one potentially disastrous afternoon, the Fighting Illini and one very special running back elevated a PR stunt gone awry into a must-see performance. They walked into a purple haze at Clark and Addison on Saturday and ran off with a school record, a bowl berth, a much-needed measure of pride and, very likely, their coach's job secured.
Illinois' 48-27 victory over Northwestern, made possible by Mikel Leshoure's school- and Wrigley Field-record 330 yards rushing, rose above circumstances that threatened to embarrass both schools, the Big Ten Conference, the Cubs and whoever else was unlucky enough to be involved.
Read the entire column.
CHICAGO -- A quick look at Illinois’ 48-27 win over Northwestern at Wrigley Field on Saturday.
How it happened: The Illini, behind the record-setting performance of running back Mikel Leshoure, flew out of the gate and barely looked back, running up 559 yards in total offense and toughening up just enough defensively in the third quarter to secure the 48-27 victory. Leshoure’s 17-yard gainer with 7:31 left in regulation broke the Illinois school record of 315 yards and is the most in the NCAA this season, surpassing Nebraska’s Roy Helu Jr.’s 307 against Missouri.
What it means: Illinois’ sixth victory makes them bowl eligible, a virtual guarantee given that the Illini will finish sixth place or better. Northwestern was already going with seven wins.
Stat of the day: Leshoure’s first half performance, 153 yards rushing on 10 carries and two touchdowns, set a frantic pace that initially looked as if Northwestern would never match it. Leshoure went over the 300-yard mark with a 62-yard carry early in the fourth quarter to set up another Illinois touchdown, and finished with a remarkable 330 yards on 33 carries.
Leshoure set the mark for most single-game rushing yards by surpassing the Robert Holcombe's previous record of 315 yards, which was set in 1996.
Leshoure also set the mark for most rushing yards by an NCAA player this season, which was previously set by Nebraska's Roy Helu Jr. who gained 307 yards against Missouri.
Leshoure, a Champaign native, has 27 carries for 301 yards, including a 61-yard scamper early in the fourth quarter that set up a touchdown by Jason Ford (his second) to put the Illini up 41-24.
Leshoure's previous game-high rushing total was 184 yards last season against Fresno State.
Leshoure began bringing attention to himself last season when he had his first 100-yard game against Purdue (122 yards) and followed it up with 150 yards the next week against Michigan. He gave Illinois an even bigger reason to feel good about his future when he ran for a career-high 184 yards and two touchdowns in the season finale against Fresno State.
Everyone assumed Leshoure would have an even bigger 2010 season, and so far, he hasn’t disappointed.
Displaying power and speed, Leshoure ran for 180 yards and one touchdown Saturday, saving Illinois from an upset against Northern Illinois.
He had eight runs of 10-plus yards, including a 29-yard touchdown run. It was also his fourth consecutive 100-yard game, marking the first time since 1997 an Illinois running back had done that.
For the season, Leshoure is already beyond halfway to his 734 rushing yards and five touchdowns of last year. In three games, he has compiled 407 yards and three touchdowns.
With the numbers he has put up and the skill he has shown, it’s only a matter of time before Leshoure’s stock takes off. While he may not play for as highly-touted of a team as Wisconsin’s John Clay or Iowa’s Adam Robinson, he has proved he belongs in that category of elite Big Ten running backs.
Biggest hit of the game: After eluding a blocker and taking down Missouri wide receiver T.J. Moe for a three-yard loss on the right side of the field, Illinois linebacker Nate Bussey did the same for another three-yard loss, but with even more impact, on the left side on the following play. As Moe caught the ball behind the line of scrimmage, Bussey avoided Missouri’s blocker, darted at Moe and delivered a shot that popped Moe’s helmet off.
Biggest play of the game: Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert was being pressured and was running out of time to find someone open on third-and-5 on Illinois’ 5-yard line. Gabbert scrambled to his left with Illinois’ defenders pursuing and finally found an open Moe in the far left corner of the end zone. The touchdown pulled Missouri within 13-10 and sparked the offense.
Illinois MVP: Running back Mikel Leshoure. There had been a lot of hype about the type of season Leshoure could have, and he started living up to it on Saturday. He broke a few runs, including one for 42 yards, and finished with 112 yards on 20 carries.
Missouri MVP: Defensive end Aldon Smith. Smith gave Illinois’ offensive line fits all night. He had a team-high 10 tackles, three tackles for a loss, two sacks and one quarterback hurry.
One for the history books: Just as Illinois redshirt quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was delivering his first career touchdown pass, Missouri’s Carl Gettis was putting a hit on him. After admiring Jenkins’ run into the end zone, Scheelhaase turned to Gettis and let him know what just happened.
The forgotten story: With the play of redshirt freshman Scheelhaase, the defense holding its own and a close game with Missouri, there will be little talk of Illinois’ kicking game after this one. It should be noted, though, that kicker Derek Dimke connected on two field goals, including a career-long 52-yarder. It was the longest Illinois field goal since 1987. Punter Anthony Santella didn’t get a lot of work, but he did boom them when needed. He averaged 46.8 yards on four punts and had a long of 52 yards.