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Illini RB Leshoure a possible NFL ‘workhorse’

Illinois football fans are holding out hope running back Mikel Leshoure will return for his senior season as a possible Heisman Trophy candidate and the focus of a high-powered offense that could become even more dangerous with another year of seasoning under coordinator Paul Petrino.

The Illini’s single-season rushing leader – Leshoure set the record with 1,697 yards this season – hasn’t yet announced a decision on the NFL Draft with the January 15 deadline for underclassmen quickly approaching. But the smart money says the Champaign native will not be wearing the orange and blue next year – at least not the Illini orange and blue.

“You only have so many carries on those legs and you might as well get paid for them,” said NFL Draft analyst Scott Wright of DraftCountdown.com.

Wright added that Leshoure would probably be making a smart decision to declare for the draft given his lack of competition in this 2011 draft class.

“Part of it is he’s coming off an amazing season, just had a great year for the Illini and the Big Ten there, but part of it is that it’s a great opportunity for him to seize this chance because this is not a great crop of running backs,” Wright said.

Little to no running backs in the senior class – highlighted by smaller, change-of-pace backs like 5-foot-8 runners Noel Devine (West Virginia) and Kendall Hunter (Oklahoma State) – are worthy of a first- or second-round draft pick, Wright said. And even though three junior ballcarriers – Alabama’s Mark Ingram, Connecticut’s Jordan Todman and California’s Shane Vereen – have already declared for the draft, only the former Heisman Trophy winner Ingram is a “sure-fire” first-round selection, Wright said.

That makes Leshoure, a 6-foot, 227-pound three-down back, an even more attractive commodity in April.

“It’s a great year for Leshoure to take advantage of that and if he comes out, he’ll probably be somewhere in that second- or third-round mix,” Wright said.

If he enters the draft, there’s little doubt that Leshoure join fellow Illini rushers Rashard Mendenhall and Pierre Thomas in the NFL. While Leshoure doesn’t quite have the high grade Mendenhall – a back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher for the Pittsburgh Steelers – had when he was drafted with the 23rd overall selection in 2008, Leshoure still is expected to make an immediate impact at the next level.

“I don’t think Leshoure is quite as fast as Mendenhall was,” Wright said. “I don’t think he’s going to run that 4.4 (second) 40 in workouts which is what really propelled Mendenhall up draft boards. Leshoure isn’t a flashy runner. He’s more of a between-the-tackles, meat-and-potatoes guy. He’s not the speedy, flashy guy who’s going to get around the corner and necessarily be a big-play threat at the next level, but he’s got the chance to be a workhorse.”

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