Associated Press Writer

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) Over the course of a handful of plays last Saturday, it became clear that Mikel Leshoure was starting to turn into the kind of running back Illinois has been waiting for since 2007.

The evidence piled up like the yardage Leshoure was adding to the stat sheet as the Illini finished off Northern Illinois 28-22.

There was the 24 yards he picked up early in the fourth quarter to put the Illini in field goal range, points they would pocket a couple of plays later for a 21-12 lead. Then a crippling 1-yard dive on a fourth-down play that, with less than five minutes to play and everyone in Memorial Stadium knowing he was about to get the ball, got a first down and kept the NIU defense on the field.

Three minutes later, a 29-yard run through a tired defense for a touchdown that finished off the game.

“Things feel good,” Leshoure said after the win, neatly summing up the season so far for the Illini (2-1), and his own quiet rise to the head of Ron Zook’s tailback committee.

By the end of the day, Leshoure had 180 yards on 24 carries – his fourth straight 100-yard game – two touchdowns, and the No. 2 spot among Big Ten rushers with 398 yards in three games, behind only Michigan’s Denard Robinson.

The 6-foot, 230-pound Leshoure is in his third season at Illinois, a rare recruit from Champaign who came to the university with some promise. The team hoped he might become the next big Illini running back after Rashard Mendenhall left after the 2007 season, but Leshoure has struggled to live up to the possibility.

He’s had big games, such as the 150 yards he put together in a 38-13 upset of Michigan last fall. But in others he seemed to disappear. There also were some other problems, including the broken jaw he sustained during a fight with a teammate that sidelined him in 2008.

Now, the coach says, Leshoure’s grown up.

“He’s really kind of matured,” Zook said this week, a bye week for the Illini before they face No. 2 Ohio State. “We saw it coming with him through spring football, this summer. He had a great offseason.”

Leshoure is among only three players on the team from Champaign, and the only one who regularly sees the field.

Zook said he recruited Leshoure as an impact player.

“He’s got the ability, we felt like, to be a big-time back,” Zook said.

Leshoure says the change in his performance is more than just his own maturity. He credits new offensive coordinator Paul Petrino. Petrino, the brother of Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino, came to Illinois in the offseason, and he talked often about his driving philosophy, something he boils down to “feed your studs.”

But Zook has talked often since Mendenhall left about his preference for a group of backs.

So far this season, though, Leshoure has been the dominant back. He has 58 carries in three games. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is next with 40, followed by tailback Jason Ford with 23.

“He’s kind of got a hot hand,” Zook said. “He’s running extremely well.”

Leshoure says the increased workload means a lot to him.

“I love the playcalling and how coach Petrino counts on me to get the job done and be the workhorse,” he said. “I feel like as long as we keep executing I can keep getting these hundred-yard games.”

Leshoure has the confidence, too, of one of his predecessors, former Illini and NFL back Howard Griffith, who says there’s no doubt Leshoure should remain the featured back.

“I think he has the potential to be a really special back, but the offense has to feed the ball to him,” Griffith said. “Once he becomes comfortable, and once the identity of what this offense is going to be emerges, then I think he’ll be outstanding. I think he has a chance to play on Sundays.”

Updated September 24, 2010

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