Running back ready to respond to next challenge

Every major college football conference has them. Each summer, the conference brings together its head coaches, who then each pick a player or two, and the whole gang goes to a bigcity hotel to stand behind microphones for a couple of days to build some hype for the upcoming season.

Last July 31, the Big Ten was at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago, and in between sound bites, Illinois coach Ron Zook spent some quality time with his 20-year-old tailback. “I told him at the beginning of the year, at the Big Ten meetings, ‘Rashard, I’m going to put some pressure on you. I really believe that we’re going to go as you go. If you have the kind of year we all think you can have, then we’re going to have a pretty good season.’ He took that challenge.”

Understand that the challenge Zook put before Rashard Mendenhall was a whole lot
different than anything Jim Tressel might have been issuing to Chris Wells over in the Ohio State corner of the ballroom. This was to be the third season Mendenhall would spend playing for Zook in Champaign, and the previous two had been spent looking up at the rest of the conference from the bottom of the standings. Last in the conference at 0-8 in 2005, the Illini improved to tied for last at 1-7 in 2006.

Five full months later, the Illinois football team, after posting a 6-2 conference record that was highlighted by wins against Wisconsin, Penn State and at Ohio State, was set to play USC in the Rose Bowl, and one of the reasons was what Mendenhall had contributed to the Illini’s running attack.

Illinois led the Big Ten in rushing, with a 5.6-yard average per play and a 256.8-yard average per game; Mendenhall personally took care of 1,681 of those yards, not to mention 17 of the 28 touchdowns. If numbers aren’t your thing, go to YouTube, type in “Rashard Mendenhall” and check out the highlights package from the 31-26 win over Wisconsin. Take special note of the number of third downs the Illini converted in the second half by handing the ball to Mendenhall.

“He is very, very talented, as talented as any guy I’ve been around when you’re talking about God-given ability,” said Zook. “He’s got the work ethic. He’s very confident, and as soon as he realizes what that league is all about and what he has to do, he’ll be an awfully good player.”

Playing a bowl game against USC is about as close to the NFL experience as one can get without getting fined for how you wear your socks, and Mendenhall got the maximum bang for his exposure on that stage.

“Obviously, USC is a very, very good football team, and at that time I believe he was thinking there was a chance he might come out (for the NFL draft),” said Zook. “I told him, ‘If you’re thinking about coming out (for the draft), it’s going to be very, very important that you have the kind of game that you can have on this national stage.’ ”

Illinois got crushed, 49-17, but Mendenhall proved he belonged. He rushed for 155 yards on 17 carries, including a 79-yard touchdown, and he caught five passes for 59 more yards.

“When you talk about the stage and the quality of the team he did it against, a very, very good football team and a defense that runs very well, I think he showed not only does he have toughness but he also showed the speed to run away from people,” said Zook. “I think he showed a lot in that game.”

If his performance against USC was the final shove Mendenhall needed to work himself into the first round of this NFL draft, Zook also knows more will be necessary to live up to the status the Steelers laid on him by making him a No. 1 pick. Zook knows this because he coached in the NFL, especially because he coached special teams under
Bill Cowher here from 1996-98.

“I tried to tell him, but he really has to experience it,” said Zook. “When you tell him it’s hard work, when you tell him it’s a different game because it’s so fast, they all believe they have the ability to adjust. Rashard does have the ability, but until he gets in there and does it, it’s hard to understand the level of football that it really is.

“He’ll never be an issue off the field, and I believe all of his good football is in front of him. He’s just going to get better and better.”