Aggressive. Determined. Elusive. Focused. Physical.
These are five words that describe No. 5 in the Illinois backfield, junior Rashard Mendenhall. A top recruit out of the state of Illinois, Mendenhall showed promise early in his collegiate career, but the success he's had this season has caught everyone's attention.
Blessed with dominant physical traits, the 5-foot-11, 224-pound Mendenhall brings the complete package to the gridiron.
"I'm so proud of Rashard," said Illinois Head Coach Ron Zook. "I told him, 'If you have the kind of year that we all think you are capable of having and do the things that the coaches are telling you to do, then we've, got a chance to be pretty good.'
"He just keeps doing it. He just keeps getting better. I think you are seeing the Rashard that we all saw when he came out of high school. Assistant head coach Reggie Mitchell has done an unbelievable job with him."
Mendenhall's ascension began last season when the Illini faced Northwestern. During a difficult 2–10 season, Illinois didn't have much to celebrate. But they got a glimpse of their future star in a 27–16 defeat to the Wildcats. Mendenhall — who had just five carries but rushed for 113 yards, which included an 86-yard touchdown scamper — catapulted into a junior campaign that received rave reviews.
This season got off to a rough start for Mendenhall against Missouri. In the season opener against the Tigers, Mendenhall carried the ball 11 times for just 33 yards, and 25 of his 33 yards came on his first of two touchdowns in the game. The game was dominated early by the Tigers as they led 37–13 halfway through the third quarter. But Illinois fought back in the second half, scoring 21 unanswered points to cut the lead to 37–34. The Illini's attempted comeback fell short as they lost 40–34, but the game set up what has been a breakout season.
After the loss to Missouri, Illinois went on a five-game winning streak, which was fueled by the play of Mendenhall. During that stretch, Mendenhall averaged 21 carries for 148 yards and two touchdowns. He finished the regular season with 1,526 yards on 245 carries and 16 touchdowns while making 29 receptions for 259 yards and two touchdowns.
Not bad for a first-year starter.
(AP Photo/Seth Perlman)
Mendenhall is a tremendously gifted all-purpose back who has great skills and quickness out of the backfield. He's an elusive runner who has great vision and awareness. He sets up opponents nicely, jukes, and makes them miss. He has quick feet and is able to stop and start without losing any momentum. He has a great combination of finesse and strength that allow him to run inside and outside, and pick up tough yards. He flashes sure hands out of the backfield and allows his blockers to set up in front of him. He picks up blitzes and is a quality blocker in pass protection.
The only concern with Mendenhall's game is his performances against some of the top defenses in college football. Mendenhall failed to reach 100 yards rushing in just five of the Illini's 12 regular season games, and those five games were against Missouri (33 yards), Penn State (76 yards), Iowa (67 yards), Michigan (87 yards), and Ohio State (88 yards).
Mendenhall had two 200-yard rushing performances this season, but those games were against an Indiana defense that allowed 156 yards on the ground per game, and a disastrous 1–11 Minnesota squad that allowed an atrocious 230 rushing yards a game.
The talent that Mendenhall possesses is quite intriguing because of his size, speed, and strength. His game and situation is similar to that of All-Pro running back Ahman Green. Green left Nebraska after his junior season, a year when he emerged as one of the most dominant runners in college football and finished with 1,877 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns. Mendenhall is in the same situation Green was in; do you strike the iron while it's hot as an underclassman, or do you risk millions and return for an uncertain senior campaign?
Recently it has surfaced that Mendenhall is leaning towards entering the draft, so that his brother Walter, who is Rashard's backup at Illinois, can play.
"That would give Walt a chance," Mendenhall said in regards to him leaving Illinois early for the draft. "And that's all he needs. Everybody talks about me, but I'm waiting to see him. As big and fast as he is, he can do things that people have never seen. That's how I've always felt. Not just because he's my brother."
Mendenhall has until January 15th to declare for the draft. His decision will be based on his performance in the Rose Bowl, where he and the Fighting Illini face a stingy USC defense that allows just 79 yards a game on the ground. If Mendenhall can avoid repeating his previous performances against top defenses, he'll likely forego his senior season and receive first-round consideration.