Home > Illinois football > Leshoure forgoes senior season, shot at Heisman to enter NFL Draft

Leshoure forgoes senior season, shot at Heisman to enter NFL Draft

CHAMPAIGN – Students flowed into the Centennial High School gym, happy to take a break from their third hour classes. Media crowded the small podium set under the south basketball hoop to honor the most successful athlete the school has seen this millennium.

The scene was similar to a signing day setup.

Only the hats of different college programs were missing. In their place were a white Centennial football helmet – where Mikel Leshoure became a wanted commodity among the college ranks – and an orange Illinois helmet, where Leshoure caught the eye of NFL scouts.

Centennial coach Mike McDonnell sat to the left of Mikel Leshoure, looking on proudly. Leshoure’s mother, Jazz Jones, beamed as her son once again took center stage.

Everyone in the gym knew what would happen in the few minutes Leshoure talked to the assembled crowd, but Leshoure thought it was important to announce his football future at the place it all started.

Wearing a three-piece gray suit and orange and blue Illinois tie, Leshoure announced at his alma mater that he is forgoing his senior season at Illinois to enter the NFL Draft.

“I’ll miss him, but I’m not going anywhere so this will always be home,” Jones said. “So I just pray that Mikel does what he needs to excel to the next level and just know that this is always home. I’m going to let him be a big boy and go.”

Leshoure said he began thinking of the NFL following his 187-yard, three-touchdown performance – breaking Rashard Mendenhall’s single-season rushing record (ending the season with 1,697 yards) in the process – in the Illini’s 38-14 Texas Bowl win over Baylor on Dec. 29.

“Me personally, I feel like I can be the No. 1, No. 2 running back going into the draft with some hard work,” Leshoure said. “That’s the feeling I went off of.

““I took some thought to it after the Baylor game. Like I said, I prayed on it and thought about it a lot. I woke up with a gut feeling that this was a decision I needed to make. I didn’t want to look back on life and regret a decision. I pretty much went with my heart and my gut feeling.”

Though Leshoure said he had people in his ear begging him to come back to Illinois, trying to persuade him with Heisman hype.

“It (the Heisman Trophy) was definitely something I thought about,” Leshoure said. “It’s something people emphasized a lot to me. It’s definitely been something I would have loved to do since I was a little boy. But at this point in my life … I feel like I’ve accomplished everything I can at the University of Illinois. I feel like this is the time for me to go to the next step in my career.

“I don’t think I could come back and do much besides win the Heisman, and with winning the Heisman you have to really on a lot of stuff and I really didn’t want to take that risk. I feel like I made the right decision and I’m happy with my decision.”

Leshoure said he considered the current labor unrest in the NFL and possible looming strike in his decision but that he made the decision soley based on what’s best for him and his family.

Illinois coaches were unable to attend the ceremony at Centennial because NCAA regulations prohibits college coaches from visiting high schools during the current dead period, which ends Thursday. UI coaches asked Leshoure to hold off on the announcement until they could attend, but Leshoure wanted to declare quickly so he could begin training right away.

“I am extremely proud of how Mikel has matured as a young man and leader for our football team since his arrival at Illinois,” UI coach Ron Zook said in a statement. “He’ll be remembered here as one of the greatest running backs in Illinois football history. We hope he has a long and successful NFL career.”

Leshoure’s next step is to hire an agent – he said that decision should come real soon – and begin training for the NFL Combine. He said he hasn’t yet decided where he will train in preparation for workouts for NFL teams.

Leshoure is projected as a second- or third-round pick by most analysts, though he said he’s read he could be drafted as late as a sixth-round pick on some websites. The top question surrounding Leshoure is his speed.

He said he hasn’t been timed in the 40-yard dash since his junior year at Centennial, when he clocked 4.52 seconds, he said.

“I can only imagine it’d be a lot faster,” Leshoure said.

Even then, McDonald knew he could have a possible NFL talent walking the halls at Centennial.

“I knew it was a very good possibility,” said McDonnell, who coached special teams at Illinois and served as a graduate assistant under Woody Hayes at Ohio State. “I’ve been at that level, I’ve coached players at that level and when you saw him even when he was a freshman, sophomore you knew he had that kind of ability.

“He’s come as about as far as you can go and that’s why he’s moving up to the next level.”

What’s next for Illinois?

Jason Ford (1,362 career rushing yards) becomes the featured back, with scatback senior Troy Pollard (361 career rushing yards) and redshirt sophomore Bud Golden likely receiving carries. Incoming freshman Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young will try to break the rotation during the summer.

“They’ll be fine with the people returning and with the people they got coming,” Leshoure said. “They’ll be fine. Illinois’ always had a solid running back core and that will continue to be.”

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Categories: Illinois football
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  1. January 11, 2011 at 9:16 pm

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