Dufrene leads candidates to replace Mendenhall

 

 

By Daniel Johnson

As if following up a Rose Bowl appearance isn’t enough of a challenge for Illinois football, it will have to replace likely the biggest reason it was in Pasadena, Calif., – Rashard Mendenhall.

Mendenhall’s early departure from Illinois left a void and a question mark for running back, a position for the Illini that had been good historically but not first-round caliber, until the arrival of the Niles, Ill., native.

The answer to the question of who will replace arguably the greatest Illinois running back since Red Grange and Jim Grabowski will be Daniel Dufrene – but not entirely.

“Dufrene will be the guy who takes the first rip,” head coach Ron Zook said at Big Ten Media Days in July. “(But) as I said earlier, it will be running back by committee.”

While Zook knew that backs Troy Pollard and Mikel Leshoure would be in the mix after having impressive spring campaigns, the committee now has one more potential member, with Jason Ford working his way into the fold. After showing Zook enough potential to warrant playing time, the head coach said there is now a possible four-back rotation.

The challenge for Zook and his staff will be finding the right combination of backs to replace the first-round pick.

The ground attack was clearly on the minds of the media at Zook’s first regular-season press conference Tuesday, with the first volley of questions going straight to the running back situation, with Dufrene receiving arguably the most questions during player interviews.

“We’re not unlike where we were a year ago today. We weren’t real sure where we were going to be, we felt like we had a chance to be a pretty good running team,” Zook said, putting his running game in perspective of last year’s version.

“We felt like the opportunity was going to be there, we knew Rashard had a bunch of God-given ability, but he hadn’t done it yet. I think after going through camp, we had a pretty good feel for what Daniel (Dufrene) could do, we had a pretty good feel for what Mikel (Leshoure) could do and Troy (Pollard).”

Zook was obviously anticipating the line of questioning; he spoke with his usual pronounced conviction for something that obviously means so much to the team – and likely more to him.

“Jason Ford was the one guy we hadn’t seen until camp. I just feel like it’s running back by committee. I don’t see, at this point and time, one guy taking it over, but if they do, it’s great.”

But it would seem that if there is one player that has the inside track in the coaching staff’s mind of taking over, it is Dufrene. Like his predecessor Mendenhall, Dufrene has never had too great of a work load to deal with, only amassing 47 rushing attempts and three receptions last year with Illinois, marking a game-high number of carries against Western Illinois with nine. During his time at the College Of The Seqouias in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., Dufrene never had that many carries per game to begin with, whether that be a good or bad thing.

“Leaving the junior college, the most I had carried the ball I think was 12 times,” Dufrene said. “I think my most (in high school) was like 30 … (but) it’s a different kind of hit.

Regardless of who will replace Mendenhall, the group of five offensive linemen who will protect the back will likely be the last to notice.

“Most of the time, we don’t know who’s in the backfield at all,” left tackle Xavier Fulton said. “Whoever runs in front of us, runs in front of us.”

Fulton points in front of himself quickly and mockingly demonstrates what happens as one of the running backs pass the line.

“That was Daniel (Dufrene). Oh, wait, it was Troy (Pollard), OK, cool.”