LeShoure: Broken jaw a “blessing in disguise” for Illinois football

Illinois’ Daniel Dufrene (22) is brought down by an Illinois defender after making a catch during a scrimmage at Oak Park-River Forest High School in Oak Park, IL on Saturday, April 11, 2008.

By Anthony Zilis

Last November, Mikel LeShoure broke his jaw in an altercation with a teammate after Illinois beat Iowa.

LeShoure’s jaw was wired shut after the incident and his season came to an early end as the Illini lost their final three games.

Because of the injury, LeShoure wasn’t able to eat like he had been used to. As a result, he lost about 12 pounds. The sophomore running back has kept off the weight and is feeling better than ever this spring.

“Blessing in disguise, I guess,” LeShoure said.

“I feel an extra burst, and my endurance is a lot better, and I feel like I can get my legs up a little higher, go a little longer.”

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With LeShoure back in better shape, the Illini will have a battle at tailback that could last through the summer and possibly the entire season. Senior Daniel Dufrene, LeShoure and fellow sophomores Jason Ford and Troy Pollard are currently competing for the starting position.

Ford and LeShoure have been impressive in scrimmages this spring, but assistant head coach and running backs coach Reggie Mitchell isn’t ready to name a frontrunner — and fans needn’t hold their breath for an announcement any time soon.

“The best thing for us is that we don’t have to name a starter until the week of the Missouri game,” Mitchell said.

Despite the tight competition, Dufrene insists that each running back is focused on the good of the team.

“We all just come out here and want to win,” Dufrene said. “We’re hungry. We want to get back to a bowl game, and whatever we have to do to get back there, we’ll do it.”

Dufrene, who transferred to Illinois after one year of junior college, is the only Illini who played in every game two seasons ago when Illinois played in the Rose Bowl. After a hamstring injury kept him out for the start of spring practice, he seems ready to step into a leadership role.

“I feel as though I have to teach them a few things,” said Dufrene, who added that he’s physically at about 80 percent after the injury.

The group will receive added competition this fall when incoming freshmen Justin Green, who decommitted from Ohio State before signing with the Illini, and Bud Golden enroll at Illinois. Both are four-star recruits according to Rivals.com and will come in right away, competing for playing time.

Mitchell is looking forward the competition and depth the freshmen will bring to the running back corps, which should go six deep.

“The best guy is going to play,” Mitchell said. “The best thing about my position is that if guys don’t come out and practice, another guy will go in front of them.”

After deciding against early enrollment, Golden and Green will have some catching up to do when they step on campus.

But even though they’re not currently with the team, camaraderie is already developing with the incoming freshmen. LeShoure was Golden’s designated host when he visited as a recruit.

“Me and Bud Golden, we kicked it off a little bit. He’s a cool guy, I’m excited for him to get here,” LeShoure said.

A six-deep running back competition may deter some players. But Dufrene seems to be putting his ego aside in favor of team success.

“That’s going to be a deep group, we just want to be as deep as we can,” Dufrene said. “The more, the better.”