It is universally acknowledged that the biggest question mark for the resurgent Illini football squad exists at the position of running back. With the early advancement of Rashard Mendenhall to the NFL, all of Urbana-Champaign waits with bated breath to see which new prospect will step up and fill the very large shoes Mendenhall left behind.
Undoubtedly, the bulk of this seasons workload will be put on the veteran running backs of the squad, Daniel Dufrene and returning fullback Rahkeem Smith. Joining them on the team this year are four new true freshman running backs, two of whom, with the correct development, could become stars in their own right.
From Belleville, IL comes Jason Ford. At a fairly intimidating 6'0", 220lbs, he looks to be a solid, bruising, backfield option. Ranked by Scout.com as the No.14 prospect in Illinois, he ran for 1,773 yards in his senior year at Althoff High School, scoring 22 touchdowns along the way. Look for him to give Dufrene a run for the starters job.
The other premier running back prospect joining the Illini this season is Mikel LeShoure. Despite an injury shortened senior season at Champaign Centennial High School, he was still named an All-American by multiple publications. He was also listed at the No.51 running back nationwide by Scout.com, and chose Illinois over many other major school offers.
Another large physical back, I would also expect him to give Dufrene a challenge for the starters position, especially after an impressive performance in a test run on the renovated Memorial Field.
Hailing from tiny Philo, IL is Mark Burgess. Coming from similarly tiny Unity High School in Tolono (enrollment of 466), he appears to have previously filled the role of utility player. Playing cornerback on defense, as well as both delivering and returning punts and kicks, he appears to have recieved little time as a running back.
Untested as he is, there must have been something that caught the scouts eyes. Still, especially due to his small 5'9" frame, I would not expect for him to be anything more than a reliable backup player, if he continues at all in the role of a running back.
The final true freshman, Zach Becker, comes in stark contrast. At 6'3", 240lbs, he would be a clear choice to eventually replace Smith at the fullback position. At St. Jospeh-Ogden High School in St. Joseph, IL, he averaged 8.2 yards per game, with six touchdowns.
As it has been proven time and time again, it is nearly impossible to determine the complete talent level of a player before they are put into real game situations, and are handed the ball. However, the recruiting acumen of Ron Zook has certainly increased the talent level of the Illini by leaps and bounds.
With the correct development, and the passing of time, Illinois could have another Mendenhall on their hands before they know it.