The transformation of the University of Illinois from laughingstock to Rose Bowl participant in just three short years under head coach Ron Zook was one of the more intriguing storylines of the 2007 college football season. After going 4-19 combined the previous two seasons, Illinois went 9-4 in 2007. One player that was there for all three years was running back Rashard Mendenhall, and the program's improvement mirrored his own as he went from a seldom-used freshman in 2005 to the Big Ten Conference's Offensive Player of the Year in 2007.
After carrying the ball just 48 times for 218 yards in '05, Mendenhall showed signs of being an explosive talent as a sophomore, leading the Big Ten in yards per carry (8.2) and posting a pair of 100-plus-yard performances as a part-time player. He was inserted as the featured back last season and responded by setting school single-season records with 1,681 yards rushing (on 262 carries) and 17 touchdowns. He was also an able receiver out of the backfield with 34 catches for 318 yards and a pair of scores. He went out with a bang, too, amassing 214 yards and a touchdown against the University of Southern California in the Rose Bowl. The junior then officially declared himself eligible for the 2008 NFL Draft on Jan. 10, 2008.
There is a lot to like about the 20-year-old tailback, beginning with his powerful arms and lower body, which enabled to shed a lot of tacklers at the collegiate level while racking up some serious yards after contact. His legs are constantly driving him forward for extra yardage, and he is the type of runner that never seems to be getting knocked back. That strong foundation also benefits him in pass protection, where his 210-pound frame should be able to stymie blitzing linebackers and safeties.
Mendenhall has solid vision and the patience to wait for a hole to develop. More importantly is the breakaway speed he demonstrated at Illinois once he broke into the open field. He was able to display that burst not only as a runner out of the backfield, but he also showed he could find space as a receiver where his solid hands came into play.
At just 20 years of age (he'll be 21 before the start of the 2008 season) and with only one season of being asked to shoulder the load under his belt, Mendenhall should be fresher entering the NFL than a lot of his fellow draftees, and he should continue to improve as he matures.
While Mendenhall's age and lack of mileage were listed as strengths, others can perceive them as weaknesses - along with a lack of playing time comes a lack of experience. It also makes for question marks regarding his ability to hold up to the weekly grind of a 16-game NFL schedule. There have also been some concerns about his offseason conditioning, which could become a factor as he ages since there doesn't appear to be much room to add size to his 5-foot-11 physique.
His elusiveness, or lack thereof, is another issue as in college Mendenhall primarily ran over physically outmatched defenders, which is a commodity he won't see nearly as often on Sundays. He also needs work on his pass-catching ability. While he was an able receiver and route-runner in college, Mendenhall has a tendency to catch the ball with his body instead his hands.
Mendenhall is viewed as a willing blocker, but he still has much to learn in terms of blitz pickup at the NFL level, although that is a common issue among backs entering the league. Depending on his NFL destination he may take some time to adjust to a more traditional offense as Illinois primarily operated out of the spread formation.
Expected Draft Placement
Even in a draft loaded with quality running backs (Arkansas' Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, Oregon's Jonathan Stewart), Mendenhall is a virtual lock to be selected in the mid-to-late stages of the first round. Perhaps the most likely destination is the desert with the Arizona Cardinals at pick No. 16.
If he gets past Arizona, other possible landing spots for Mendenhall include the Houston Texans (18th overall) and the Dallas Cowboys (22nd - if they don't move up to get McFadden). Bottom line; expect Mendenhall to be the second or third back off the board behind McFadden and possibly Stewart.
About Herija C. Green
A graduate of the prestigious Top Gun school, Green's ego writes checks his body can't cash. When he's not overdrawing his ego's bank account, Green enjoys games of beach volleyball, riding his Kawasaki Ninja motorcycle, and buzzing the tower (whether the pattern is full or not). He resides in the Danger Zone and yes, Ice... Man, he is dangerous. He also writes.
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