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ILLINOIS REPORT

Mendenhall earns some attention

December 28, 2007|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

Clusters of reporters gathered around Juice Williams and Ron Zook as the Illinois football team came off the practice field Thursday afternoon.

It only makes sense that the media would want to hear from the quarterback and the coach who will lead the Fighting Illini against USC in the Rose Bowl.

But off to the side, someone equally responsible for the team's success this season tried to slip quietly away.

"Oh no," Rashard Mendenhall said when informed that, yes, he would have to give an interview.

"I'm not big on the spotlight," Mendenhall said. "I'm traditionally more in the shadows."

Except on game day.

This season, the junior ranks as the nation's eighth-best rusher with 1,526 yards and 16 touchdowns. While the scrambling Williams has provided electricity, it is Mendenhall who has powered the Illini from week to week.

"Last year we had a couple of guys" running the ball, Zook said. "This year, we pushed him to be the guy."

As in 150 yards and three touchdowns against Syracuse, 214 yards and a touchdown against Indiana and 201 yards and two touchdowns against Minnesota.

"He doesn't go down with the first hit," Ball State linebacker Mike Dorulla said after his team was victimized for 189 yards. "He spins, he keeps his legs driving."

A top high school recruit out of Skokie, Ill., Mendenhall chose Illinois because his older brother Walter, who helped raise him, was already on the roster.

As a freshman in 2005, the younger Mendenhall played sparingly. As a sophomore, he split time with Pierre Thomas -- now with the New Orleans Saints -- showing power and speed but struggling with fumbles.

This fall, before Big Ten media day, Zook informed him: "I'm going to put a little pressure on you."

The coach announced that if Mendenhall could carry the load on a consistent basis, the Illini might have a decent season. As for the string of solid performances that followed, Mendenhall doesn't really have an explanation.

"It's been a blessing," he said, "things coming together."

Even with mediocre numbers against Ohio State, he drew enough attention from the Buckeyes' defense to free Williams for a big day.

The Big Ten coaches subsequently chose him as offensive player of the year, raising questions about an early departure for the NFL this spring.

Before deciding, Mendenhall says, he must face a USC defense that has surrendered less than 80 yards a game on the ground this season.

"Just being here is not enough," he said. "We've got to get it done."

Which means the reticent back might have to grab a piece of the spotlight.

--

david.wharton@latimes.com

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