Strong history of backs continues with ’07 duo

Illinois running back Rashard Mendenhall tries to shake past Jason Williams during the game against Western Illinois at Memorial Stadium on Saturday. Mendenhall rushed 139 yards in the game. Illinois beat Western, 21-0. Erica Magda

Adam Babcock

Illinois running back Rashard Mendenhall tries to shake past Jason Williams during the game against Western Illinois at Memorial Stadium on Saturday. Mendenhall rushed 139 yards in the game. Illinois beat Western, 21-0. Erica Magda

By Jason Grodsky

With the loss of Pierre Thomas and E.B. Halsey to graduation, the Illinois running game wasn’t expected to be as big of a threat this season as it was in 2006. But, just two games into the season, the Illini ground attack is proving people wrong.

Illinois has defended its Big Ten rushing title from 2006 by rushing for 396 yards through two weeks of the season, averaging 198 yards on the ground per game. Of the Illini’s seven offensive touchdowns this season, six have come via the ground and last week’s 277 rushing yards against Western Illinois were the most yards Illinois has gained on the ground since the Illini ran for 316 yards against Purdue last season on Nov. 11, 2006.

With his career-high 23 carries and 139 yards rushing last week, junior running back Rashard Mendenhall has laid to rest questions about whether or not he would be able to carry the load after the departure of Thomas and Halsey.

“Rashard is a big-time running back and when he comes to play he can be as good as anyone in the conference,” offensive coordinator Mike Locksley said.

Despite his 5.1 yards per carry through two games being a far cry from his 8.2 yards per carry average last season, Mendenhall has found the end zone three times already this year. To date, Mendenhall has accumulated 1,030 yards rushing in his career on only 160 carries, averaging 6.4 yards per carry. If he keeps that pace he would blow past the career record held by Thomas at 5.6 yards per carry.

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The Skokie, Ill., native is also just 220 rushing yards away from cracking the school’s list of top-25 career rushers, which includes Illini greats Jim Grabowski, Harold “Red” Grange and Robert Holcombe.

“Becoming the main guy was just a natural step for me,” Mendenhall said. “I played a little more each year and just like in high school you start to get in a little of a rhythm and that’s what has happened here.”

While Mendenhall is starting to come into his own as the Illini’s feature back, junior college transfer Daniel Dufrene has emerged to provide the team with another duo in the backfield.

Dufrene is averaging 7.3 yards per carry and his 32-yard touchdown run last week was his first career touchdown as an Illini and also the longest run of the year for Illinois.

In most running back duos the backs will provide the team with contrasting running styles, but that’s not the case with Dufrene and Mendenhall.

“Their running styles complement each other more than contrast each other,” Locksley said. “Rashard is a little guy in a big man’s body and has the explosive speed to go the distance, but is also nifty enough at 220 pounds to make guys miss. Daniel is the same makeup and runs downhill with good pad level and is an explosive ball carrier.”

Sharing duties in the backfield is nothing new for Illinois running backs. Ever since the 1998 season the Illini have featured a multiple running back system, with the only exception coming in 2002 when Antoineo Harris shouldered the load all by himself.

While sharing carries may cause tension between the backs, both Mendenhall and Dufrene see it as an opportunity to push each other to perform better. The pair’s relationship on the field has translated to a solid bond off the field as well.

“They are the best of friends off the field,” Locksley said. “Rashard has really taken the leadership role on the offense and he has enough confidence in himself that he doesn’t have to worry about the competition. They just want the best guy out there.”

With Mendenhall and Dufrene’s strong relationship off the field the Illini are hoping that the two will find the magic together on the field and lead the Illini rushing attack to back-to-back Big Ten rushing titles.

“In this league today you really need more than one running back because it’s a load to carry with one guy,” Mendenhall said. “Having another guy that can come in and change the pace can definitely improve your rushing attack.”