Home > Illinois football > Leshoure, Liuget drive to enter NFL draft leaves Illini roster with potholes

Leshoure, Liuget drive to enter NFL draft leaves Illini roster with potholes

Tuesday was a proud day for Illinois football but a tough day.

Illini fans and coaches wished well to future NFL players Mikel Leshoure, a running back, and Corey Liuget, a defensive tackle, just one day after linebacker Martez Wilson also entered his name into the 2011 NFL Draft.

Leshoure announced his decision at a press conference at Centennial High School in Champaign, his alma mater. The Liuget news came via ESPN insider Joe Schad’s Twitter page.

No matter how the news broke, it put a damper on Illinois’ prospects in 2011.

The Illini were riding high following a 38-14 win over Baylor in the Texas Bowl, the program’s first bowl victory since 1999. Leshoure seemed a for-sure goner after earning MVP honors at the Texas Bowl (187 yards, three touchdowns) and setting the UI single-season rushing record with 1,697 yards. Liuget (12.5 tackles for loss) always seemed like a likely candidate to leave Illinois early given his unique blend of size, speed and strength.

Liuget is expected to be a first- or second-round draft pick, while Leshoure is expected to be one of the first running backs off the board.

Wilson’s decision, however, was semi-surprising given that he is currently considered a middle-round selection. A top recruit out of high school, Wilson didn’t produce up to expectations – he missed the 2009 season with a neck injury – until his redshirt junior season this year when he led the Illini with 112 tackles, including 11.5 tackles for loss.

Another All-Big Ten caliber year at Illinois could have been a good investment into his first NFL contract. But with plans to graduate this spring, the lure of earning an NFL paycheck as quickly as possible seemed to sway his decision.

Now, Illinois must replace four of its five All-Big Ten performers – punter Anthony Santella graduates while kicker Derek Dimke will return for his senior season. Even if you’re Ohio State, it’s tough to replace that kind of talent.

So who needs to step up for Illinois to make back-to-back bowl games for the first time this decade?

 

Running back

Losing Leshoure certainly hurts, but Jason Ford looks plenty ready to shoulder the load for the Illini. The 6-foot-1, 235-pound Belleville native ran for 480 yards this season, 588 as a sophomore and 294 as a freshman. He had two games of 86 or more yards this season, had two games of 128 or more yards as a sophomore and a 172-yard performance against Indiana as a freshman. Senior Troy Pollard is a change-of-pace scatback, and redshirt sophomore Bud Golden (eight carries, 32 yards) should receive an opportunity.

Linebacker

Just as he’s coming into his own at linebacker, Wilson decided to bolt for the NFL. With Nate Bussey graduating, the Illini have two slots to replace at the second tier. Illinois’ depth took a hit when Nate Palmer and Evan Frierson transferred to Illinois State, but freshman Jonathan Brown (31 tackles, one interception for a touchdown) showed enough to be a factor in Wilson’s spot next year. Sophomore Ashante Williams (19 tackles) would seem to have the upper edge on the strongside. But Illinois will need untested youth, like Brandon Denmark and Houston Bates or true freshmen, to step up early next season.

Defensive tackle

Wilson and Leshoure are big losses for the Illini, but Liuget will be the toughest to replace. Coaches have difficulty finding 6-foot-3, 300-pound defensive tackles with his quickness. Akeem Spence (45 tackles, one for loss), who was named to the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) Freshman All-America Team, will return to fill one of the interior starting positions and could be a future NFL’er. Sophomore Glenn Foster (17 tackles, one sack) played an increased role last year and junior Darryle Ballew rotated in for Spence. Senior Wisdom Onyegbule will be counted on for depth, and we’ll keep an eye on Tim Kynard and Austin Teitsma in camp.

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Categories: Illinois football
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