Leshoure carrying the load for 3-2 Illini

Deandre Smith has high expectations for his running backs.

Three-and-a-half yards per carry after contact should be the goal every play, the Illini running backs coach said.

Mikel Leshoure has taken that to heart.

The junior running back has average 5.7 yards per carry, much of the time barreling two or three yards after being wrapped up by a defender.

“I’ve emphasized that all my career, and he’s really bought into it. Running with a great pad level, falling forward, things that I emphasize every single day,” Smith said.

“He got stronger, he’s faster, now he’s just able to channel his power in the right direction.”

Leshoure’s speed and strength, along with his four games out of five with 100 rushing yards or more, have him leading a running back corps that was much more level last year.

Last season, the Illini didn’t have a standout back — all were put on a level playing field.

Leshoure and fellow junior Jason Ford were complemented by the speedy third-down back, Troy Pollard.

This year, Leshoure has far and away been the most effective running back.

After entering his sophomore year with hype, Ford has taken a back seat, averaging a modest 3.6 yards per carry.

“I’m fine with my role with team. I’ll do what I can to help the team,” the soft-spoken Ford said.

“From spring ball until the summer, (Leshoure) was running hard. He had a great camp. It’s what we expected. The o-line’s doing a great job, so we expect that every game.”

Pollard also ceded carries early in the season, tallying only eight before Saturday’s 33-13 victory at Penn State, when he carried eight times for 55 yards.

Smith says to expect an increase in the 5-foot-9, 190-pound junior’s carries.

“We’re going to try to get Troy out there,” Smith said.

“He’s been working really hard. It’s hard to get three guys a chance to play but there’s some things that we’ll keep trying to find week in and week out,” Smith added.

Still, it’s difficult to take carries away from the 6-foot, 230-pound Leshoure, whose attitude and weight issues seem to be a thing of the past.

“I feel stronger. I’m not sure about specific numbers, but I’m stronger,” Leshoure said.

“I feel like I’m a total better player than last year just all around. I think about how much harder I ran on certain plays than others.”

After coming from UNLV in January, Smith knew he had a running back he could mold into a star.

“The things I heard about him, I heard he had a lot of ability, it was just a matter of keeping him focused at the task at hand,” Smith said. “If he did those things, he was going to be OK.”