Tailback triumvirate adds flexibility to running attack

By Courtney Linehan

On each Saturday’s depth chart, one position regularly stands out as a toss-up between a slew of strong players.

There’s Pierre Thomas, the smiling senior who dares opponents to get in his way – then runs up Illinois’ rushing statistics, consistently leading the team.

Or the coaches could go with E.B. Halsey, one of the most experienced Illini players and a two-year captain.

Then there’s always Rashard Mendenhall, the sophomore who couldn’t wait to follow brother Walter to Illinois, and made his mark early as a freshman last year.

While Illinois struggles to prove last weekend’s 33-0 loss to Rutgers was a fluke and not a sign of the pattern this season will take, the coaching staff knows there will be three names promising big things in Saturday’s game: Thomas, Halsey and Mendenhall.

“They all bring something to the table,” head coach Ron Zook said. “There is no question that Pierre is a big-time back in my opinion. I think we can all see the things that Rashard can do. He’s a very, very talented young man that when he gets the ball in his hands and he has some open ground, he can go. E.B. gives us, particularly on third down, things that Pierre and Rashard don’t do.”

Illinois has rotated its starting running back over the past two games, and Zook plans to continue mixing it up for the rest of the season. Thomas hit the field first against Eastern Illinois, but when the Illini played in Halsey’s home state of New Jersey, the local took to the field.

Zook said Tuesday that it’s not impossible for Mendenhall to get in the mix, and that he has confidence sending three strong players in gives Illinois an edge.

“They’ve been pretty fair, we play pretty evenly,” Mendenhall said. “I feel a lot better just knowing where I fit in and that they’re helping me out.”

Thomas rushed 15 times for 126 yards and two touchdowns in the opener against Eastern Illinois, while Halsey rushed 11 times for 83 yards and a touchdown and Mendenhall added 10 carries for 75 yards and 2 touchdowns.

When Illinois traveled to Piscataway, N.J. last weekend, Thomas again led the attack with 7 runs for 38 yards and Mendenhall and Halsey followed in second and third.

Jockeying for starting spots hasn’t built the animosity you might expect among these three players.

“We all communicate, we are always telling each other what we’re seeing on the field,” Thomas said. “We’re teammates on and off the field.”

Thomas says they play like brothers, always working together to help each other do better on the field. Quarterback Tim Brasic says it’s more like two tough dads, Halsey and Thomas, teaching their son, Rashard, the ways of the game.

“E.B. and Pierre are both seniors, both captains, both leaders of the team,” Mendenhall said. “Since I’ve been here they’ve taken me under their wing. I’m almost like a little brother to them. They show me the ropes, push me, help me out.”

Thomas will be the likely starter in tomorrow’s game against Syracuse, when Illinois will once again look to its running backs to lead the offense.

“We’ve not talked in detail about it,” Zook said. “But we started this season out with the idea that Pierre is going to start out for us, E.B. was going to start the second game and we are not sure what we will do this week.”