Running back Leshoure looks to improve on breakout season

John Supinie

The Illinois quarterbacks are young. That's OK, said running back Mikel Leshoure, because he's been around the block.

A junior from Champaign Centennial High School, Leshoure overcame a broken jaw as a freshman and a one-game suspension early last season to lead Illinois in rushing last fall.

With sophomore Jacob Charest, redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase and freshman Chandler Whitmer battling for the starting quarterback spot in a revamped offense, Leshoure said the Illini can lean on him.

"If you watch our practices, we've got quarterbacks who are young and inexperienced,'' Leshoure said. "They're making throws that they might not make down the road in their careers. In the fourth quarter when we need a win and yardage to get first downs, I want to be the guy they can rely on to be successful.

"I want to be the guy in the fourth quarter to win the game, the guy who can take pressure off the young quarterbacks.''

Leshoure earned honorable mention all-Big Ten last season after rushing for 734 yards and five touchdowns. He ranked sixth in the Big Ten with 66.7 yards per game and was part of a rushing offense that was second in the Big Ten by averaging 200.4 yards per game.

He set career highs in consecutive weeks, rushing for 78 against Indiana and 122 yards at Purdue before gaining 150 and scoring on a 70-yard touchdown run against Michigan.

Then Leshoure put an exclamation point on his season by rushing for a career-high 184 yards with two rushing touchdowns plus a 22-yard touchdown catch in the season finale against Fresno State. Leshoure's yards were up because his weight was down, and he's weighing even less this spring.

The 6-foot, 220-pound Leshoure dropped 18 pounds since his freshman season, and eight pounds after last season, he said.

"I can feel the difference in my speed, quickness and stamina,'' he said.

Leshoure can also see a difference in offensive coordinator's Paul Petrino's scheme. The pro-style formation puts the quarterback under center more and a fullback back in the game plan.

"We'll probably have a few more downhill runs with the lead blocker than he had (last year),'' Petrino said.

That sounds good to Leshoure.

"I like the fact that we have a fullback in front of us and a lot less option,'' Leshoure said. "You can see and read a little better than in the shotgun.''

He'll face competition from junior Jason Ford (588 yards, four touchdowns in 2009), sophomore speedster Justin Green, junior Troy Pollard and redshirt freshman Bud Golden. Junior Zach Becker and redshirt freshman Greg Fuller are the lead candidates at fullback. But Leshoure wanted the coaches to know they can rely upon him.

He suffered the broken jaw in a late-season altercation with former teammate Jeff Cumberland as a freshman, then missed the home opener last season because of a violation of team rules.

"He's working hard and doing all the things we ask,'' Illinois coach Ron Zook said. "As a coach, I don't think you hold grudges. They understand they have to prove themselves. There are four other guys who are pretty good players. The competition makes it all better.''

Leshoure said they can count on him.

"We've moved on,'' Leshoure said. "We live and we learn. The coaches see that, too. They see I'm serious now about what I do.''

NOTES: The Illini will take 40-50 snaps in a controlled scrimmage Saturday. The workout begins at 10 a.m. The scrimmage will start about 11:30. The session is open to the public. … Illinois will also host a group of high school juniors Saturday. … Illinois practiced in pads Friday for the first time this spring. The spring game is April 24.

John Supinie can be reached at