Mendenhall looks to gain more playing time

Illinois players interact with fans after the game Sept. 10, at Memorial Stadium. Illinois defeated San Jose State, 40-19. Josh Birnbaum

Illinois players interact with fans after the game Sept. 10, at Memorial Stadium. Illinois defeated San Jose State, 40-19. Josh Birnbaum

By Derek Barichello

Right now it’s too early to say how much of an impact freshman runningback Rashard Mendenhall will make this season, but Sept. 10 was a glimpse of what is possible.

In the second quarter of the Illini’s eventual 40-19 route over San Jose State, Mendenhall got his first carry of the season, a burst of speed for eight yards.

Ten carries and 56 yards later, the Illini’s top recruit left nobody in the stadium questioning his abilities.

“You saw what we saw in Rashard,” said head coach Ron Zook. “He’s got a little different gear.”

Instead, the questions were on how many carries the freshman would get against No. 16 California next weekend.

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Zook gave no specifics, but said Mendenhall would get more playing time as he gets in better shape and learns how to block in pass protections.

He will also have to compete with juniors E.B. Halsey and Pierre Thomas for playing time.

“If we could get all three in, there is no question it will help us,” Zook said.

Mendenhall is the fastest of the three backs and would add more versatility to the backfield.

“It’s going to be hard to keep up with us three,” Thomas said.

Mendenhall said he will do anything to get more carries.

“Whenever they need me to step up, I will.”

For Mendenhall, he is still trying to adjust to the college game.

“Everything just happened so fast,” Mendenhall said. “Everybody’s a lot faster. College is a lot more physical, when you get hit, you feel it.”

With all three running backs sharing carries, it would be easy for egos to get in the way, but that is not a concern for the Illini backfield.

“I understand people think there’s not enough balls, there’s not enough carries, but that stuff will come down the line,” Halsey said. “Our focus right now is getting wins. If we keep getting wins, people aren’t going to worry about how many carries they are getting.”

How Sweet It Is To Be 2-0

The last time the Illini started 2-0 was in 2001 when they went 10-2 and advanced to the Sugar Bowl.

Junior E.B. Halsey said the 2-0 start reminded him of his high school days.

“Playing on a good team and getting wins early helps the confidence,” Halsey said. “The guys are excited. We are looking at it like a 12-game journey, you just beat a good team today, tomorrow starts our prep for Cal.”

Former Illini WR Hall of Fame Bound

In the first quarter of Saturday’s game, Illinois honored its all-time leading receiver David Williams.

Williams will be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in December. In his two years at Illinois, he caught 262 passes for 3,392 yards and 24 touchdowns, leaving as the second-leading receiver in college football history.

He went on to play for the Los Angeles Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers and played seven years in the Canadian Football League.

“It’s nice coming back, because everyone says ‘you know what, you were pretty good,’ and it’s nice to be able to say, ‘you know, it was an honor to play in front of them,'” Williams said.

Williams, who played on Illinois’ last Rose Bowl team in 1984, believes Zook has the Illini on the right track to return there.

“He knows what he has to do,” Williams said. “He has to recruit and get the people in here. I like his style. It’s just a matter of getting the talent in there. I like how they have already progressed from game one to game two.”

Illini Injury Report

Starting wide receiver Kendrick Jones did not play in Saturday’s game because of plantar fatcitis.

“We wanted to get him the rest,” Zook said. “It’s off and on. It’s a nagging injury.”

Also, in Saturday’s game, punter Steve Weatherford sprained his ankle on a blocked punt in the first quarter. Weatherford continued to punt for the Illini, but sat out on kickoffs. Zook said he does not expect Weatherford to miss any time.