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|AP Photo/Jay LaPrete|
|Running back Daniel Dufrene has big shoes to fill this season.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
RANTOUL, Ill. -- There aren't many people Daniel Dufrene meets who don't bring up Rashard Mendenhall.
Dufrene hears it from reporters, from fans, from anyone who watched Mendenhall's record-setting 2007 season at Illinois. The difference now is when Mendenhall's name comes up, Dufrene can smile and laugh.
There was none of that going on this spring.
"The coaches, they don't want me to be Rashard, they want me to be myself," said Dufrene, projected to succeed Mendenhall at running back for Illinois. "During the spring, really, I didn't listen to them as much. I just felt the pressure of trying to fill his shoes. Now I'm just more relaxed, just coming out and being myself."
The approach is helping Dufrene in preseason camp, as he moves closer to locking down the starting job. Though redshirt freshman Troy Pollard and true freshmen Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure also are in the mix for carries, Dufrene should get the first shot when Illinois opens the season Aug. 30 against Missouri.
The 5-foot-11, 201-pound junior averaged 6.3 yards a carry in limited work last season as Mendenhall's backup. But given a chance to lock down the top spot this spring, Dufrene struggled, and so did the other backs. Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley let them know about it, publicly expressing his disappointment in the group.
"He said we weren't running tough, running hard," Dufrene said. "I just took that as a challenge."
Locksley's message seems to have hit its mark.
"Awesome," he said of the backs' performance in camp. "That's been the biggest surprise group of training camp for us on offense. Coming into summer, we felt our receiving corps was probably the strength of our offense and that the backfield was a question mark, but Daniel has packed on a couple extra pounds. He looks really good. He's been pounding the ball up inside, he's got tremendous speed outside. I've been pleased with him."
Despite the subpar spring as a runner, Dufrene geared the offseason toward improving other areas, namely pass-blocking and catching passes out of the backfield. Mendenhall punished defenses as a ball-carrier, but he also finished second on the team in receptions with 34.
Illinois' offense requires its backs to do it all, and the adjustment took time for Dufrene, a junior-college transfer who started his college career at Vanderbilt. He was in a similar system at College of the Sequoias in California, but Illinois emphasizes the run more.
"If you look at junior-college guys, a lot of times it's their second year when they really perform the way you think that they can," head coach Ron Zook said. "I don't have any reason to think that Daniel's not going to be the type of back he was when we recruited him."
Dufrene's comfort level already has improved in the first week of camp. He had 10 carries for 60 yards and a touchdown in Monday's scrimmage. Perhaps more important, he set up the score with a 43-yard reception on a swing pass from quarterback Juice Williams.
Zook is keeping the competition open for the starting spot, but Dufrene, who has taken the majority of reps with the first-team offense, feels it's his job to lose.
"I've grasped what's going on," he said. "I've always felt confident in my running ability."