Mendenhall’s draft status uncertain

Rashard Mendenhall dives for the end zone against Northwestern at Memorial Stadium on Nov. 17, 2007. Mendenhall rushed for 124 yards in the game, helping Illinois defeat the Wildcats 41-22. Erica Magda

Rashard Mendenhall dives for the end zone against Northwestern at Memorial Stadium on Nov. 17, 2007. Mendenhall rushed for 124 yards in the game, helping Illinois defeat the Wildcats 41-22. Erica Magda

By Wes Anderson

When Rashard Mendenhall joined a struggling Illinois football program as a freshman halfback in 2005, it took a pair of binoculars to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

The Illini had just four wins in the last two years, and first-year head coach Ron Zook still had the label of “a good recruiter who can’t coach” firmly affixed to his reputation following his dismissal from Florida. Mendenhall was far from a freshman phenom, buried in the depth chart behind juniors Pierre Thomas and E.B. Halsey, and had just 48 carries in his first season.

Three years later, the future couldn’t be brighter, even though the outlook remains unclear.

Thanks to an incredible junior-year performance, in which he set school records for rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and all-purpose yards, Mendenhall is set to become the first Illinois player picked in the first round of the NFL Draft since 1996 this weekend.

However, the team Mendenhall will end up with Saturday is up for debate. Mock drafts via various news sources across the Internet have him going to the Lions, Cowboys, Buccaneers, Panthers, Seahawks, Cardinals or his hometown Chicago Bears.

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Mendenhall’s “draft stock” has soared in the last few months, and the junior has undoubtedly capitalized by leaving school early. Illinois’ 9-4 record and Rose Bowl berth last season turned heads across the country, and his 155 yards rushing against USC kept him in the limelight despite the Illini’s 49-17 defeat.

Wide receiver Brian Gamble, who set up a key block downfield during Mendenhall’s only touchdown in the game, a 79-yard sprint, saw firsthand why Rashard has the chops for the NFL.

“They always teach you to stay on your blocks, and Rashard’s fast so I really had to get on my horse,” Gamble said. “He’s an incredible player, best of luck to him.”

Mendenhall’s coaching staff saw the Skokie, Ill., native’s potential from the start.

“He had a great career here,” said Reggie Mitchell, assistant head coach and running backs coach.

Mitchell said Mendenhall had to “feel his way through it” his first two years, but made steady improvement. A breakout junior year, his first and only as the starting running back, didn’t surprise those who were aware of his talent level.

“There’s probably two Rashards walking around college campuses right now, you know what I mean?” Mitchell said. “You look at the kid at Arkansas (running back Darren McFadden) and Rashard, and that’s a special kind of player.”

The comparison to McFadden could not be more appropriate. Draft experts across the country have consistently ranked McFadden and Mendenhall, both underclassmen, as the top running backs in the 2008 draft.

So whether he ends up in Carolina, Seattle or somewhere in between, Mitchell doesn’t question that Mendenhall can contribute anywhere in the NFL.

“You don’t get to coach guys like that very often,” Mitchell said.

The best example of Mendenhall’s ability as a feature back may be the effect his departure has made on his former team. While the Illini led the Big Ten in rushing the last two seasons, a concerned coaching staff has been forced to emphasize the passing game this spring due to a lackluster running attack.

Daniel Dufrene, the early favorite to replace Mendenhall at the top of the depth chart, struggled in April’s scrimmages, gaining just 18 yards on 10 carries in last Saturday’s spring game. Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley called the lack of burst in the running game the “biggest disappointment” of spring practices.

“As a coach, it’s certainly frustrating to see the players go out there and just slop around … the biggest concern I have is finding a guy who can run physically and make some of the plays that Rashard made for us,” Locksley said.

While the Illinois coaching staff continues to reconcile the loss of the team’s premier rusher, Mendenhall is days away from competing at the highest level.

Tony Hickombottom, a representative at Priority Sports, Mendenhall’s agency, said Mendenhall will hold a draft party at the House of Blues in Chicago on Saturday rather than head to New York for the official ceremonies.

Where he will head after receiving that fateful phone call is anybody’s guess.