New Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino runs a sophisticated passing offense, but it can work properly only with a strong running game. The Illini have five backs capable of helping the offense, but there is no doubt Mikel Leshoure has the potential to be the top runner at the position.
Last season, Leshoure gained 734 net yards and scored five touchdowns. He averaged a tremendous 6.8 yards per rushing attempt, alternating with Jason Ford, Troy Pollard, Daniel Dufrene and Justin Green. However, he played only 11 games after being suspended for one game. He realizes he must be more mature if he wants to be the feature back.
"I had some off the field issues last year, and I've made strides to better myself as a person and a player. Coach Petrino and Coach (DeAndre) Smith expect big things out of me, and they expect me to be a playmaker on this team. I need to show them that I can be their guy. I want to make that happen."
The 225 pounder wants to be the go-to guy, but he respects his competition and sees value in sharing responsibilities.
"We can pound the ball and stretch the field so by the third and fourth quarter the defense takes a pounding. By alternating guys, it keeps us fresh."
Ford appears to be his main competition.
"It's a competition regardless of how friendly we are. He's my friend off the field, but at the same time the coaches are going to play the best player and we know that. We like to compete and make ourselves better."
It took awhile for the players to acclimate to the new offense. But by the end of spring ball, Leshoure and his teammates were much more effective. He personally scored on a 75 yard run second half of the Spring Game.
"I think we made big strides. We had to get used to the offense. We had to get better everyday. Now that we know the offense we'll play a lot faster. We were moving faster (in the Spring Game) than we did the first scrimmage because we knew what we were doing."
A running back is only as good as his offensive line. Leshoure sees progress in that unit.
"They're making adjustments, and we're learning as we go. We're kind of a little young there, but all in all they had a pretty good spring."
He feels quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase can provide more openings for the running backs with his pass/run threat.
"I think it takes pressure off the whole offense. I think it'll make us a better offense."
Of course, Scheelhaase and his backups are young and inexperienced. A good running game can relieve pressure on the qbs also.
"For us to be able to pound the ball and pick up first downs, we're willing to do that and the coaches expect us to do that. We're going to run hard and compete."
Leshoure is in top shape and appears to be maturing. Now he needs to gain the trust of the coaching staff according to head coach Ron Zook.
"The mistakes he's made he's paid for. We go on from there. He's working hard, he's done all the things we've asked him to do. He's done well in the classroom.
"I don't think as a coach you hold grudges. They understand they have to prove themselves. We've all made mistakes. We pay the price and go on. He also knows he needs to keep working hard because there are four other guys that are pretty good players as well.
"The competition there makes us all better. I don't know if he ever lost our trust, but he knows for him to be all he wants to be, he has to do things right."
Leshoure is working to be a dominant offensive player. But other than wanting to be first string and have a good season, his personal goals are few.
"I don't have any specific goals as far as statistics. I'd love to not fumble the ball. From my recollection, I don't think I have any fumbles yet. That's the number one thing, no turnovers. As for personal goals, that's tough. I really couldn't tell you."