NEWS

Mendenhall: Time right to leave Illini

John Supinie

Before his junior season began, Illinois running back Rashard Mendenhall wanted to make a move to the NFL. By the time the season ended, he already had his mind made up.

Mendenhall made it official Thursday at Skokie Niles West High School in Skokie, Ill., declaring his intention to skip his senior year and jump to the NFL.

“Before the season, I sat down with (running backs coach Reggie Mitchell),” Mendenhall said. “We talked about if I had the kind of year I wanted to have and the team did the things we wanted to do, this would be a decision I might want to make - to jump to the NFL.”

When Illinois lost to Southern California in the Rose Bowl, “for the most part, it was done,” Mendenhall said.

After setting single-season school records with 1,681 rushing yards, 1,999 all-purpose yards, 19 touchdowns and 114 points, Mendenhall made the announcement that had been expected for more than a month in front of family, former coaches and the youth team where Mendenhall first played organized football.

Mendenhall, the Big Ten MVP, decided to enter the pro draft when he learned the NFL advisory panel said he could be taken in the first round.

Even if the list of running backs in this draft is extensive, including names such as Arkansas’ Darren McFadden and Central Florida’s Kevin Smith, the nation’s leading rusher, Mendenhall wasn’t concerned with how he would stack up against the competition.

“That’s obviously a factor with how deep the class is,” he said. “It wasn’t too much in the decision. I’m just confident in my abilities and where I’ll go in the draft.”

Mendenhall will work with Illinois strength coach Lou Hernandez while attempting to complete the spring semester. He enters 2008 needing two semesters of work to earn a degree in community recreation.

Mendenhall plans to attend draft-timing day held each spring in the Irwin Indoor Practice Facility and the NFL combine in Indianapolis. The possibility of injury if he returned for his senior year played a role in Mendenhall’s decision.

“There is definitely a risk and reward as far as going in the draft,” he said. “As far as my future, I feel confident in leaving right now.”

Mendenhall became the first player to leave Illinois early for the NFL since wide receiver Brandon Lloyd in 2002. Mendenhall hasn’t yet hired an agent, he said.

“I don’t have any plans as far as agents,” Mendenhall said. “That’s a decision that I want to be sure about, so I’ll wait as late as possible.

“(The NFL draft in April) seems close. I’m a little eager to see how things pan out and what’s going to happen. I will try to better myself as much as I can.”

Mendenhall’s mother, Sibyl, called it a family decision. She sat at the head table with Rashard and Walter Mendenhall, the older brother who will return to Illinois as a fifth-year senior running back this fall.

“This is something that I always expected,” she said. “I envisioned it. I told (Rashard and Walter) when they were young that they were destined for greatness. I didn’t know how they would reach that point.

“This happens to be the outlet. His time has come. You have to strike while the iron is hot.”

Mendenhall’s jersey, helmet and photos were displayed in one corner of the auditorium, where red and white Niles West colors were also prominent. Mark Egofske, Mendenhall’s coach at Niles West, and former youth coach Joe Galambos also spoke.

Parents of the feeder team asked questions while Mendenhall later signed autographs.

“This is where it all started,” Sibyl Mendenhall said. “Nothing is impossible if you put your mind to it, sacrifice and discipline yourself.”

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. For more coverage, read Illini Talk blog at www.sj-r.com and www.pjstar.com.