Published January 11, 2011
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Mikel LeShoure spent 2010 making a name for himself, breaking Illinois' single-season rushing record with 330 yards of it coming on one unreal November day.
The junior Illini running back figures it's time to move on and hopefully start cashing a paycheck for his work. He declared for the NFL draft on Tuesday, deciding to skip his senior season.
"Lifelong dream is an understatement," he told reporters at a news conference at his old high school, Centennial in Champaign. "This is big."
The move had been expected since the Illini's Texas Bowl win over Baylor. Illini coach Ron Zook said Leshoure had grown up while at Illinois.
"I am extremely proud of how Mikel has matured as a young man and leader for our football team since his arrival at Illinois," Zook said. "He'll be remembered here as one of the greatest running backs in Illinois football history."
Leshoure rushed last season for 1,697 yards — 16 more than the old Illini record set in 2007 by Rashard Mendenhall — and ran for 17 touchdowns. His 330-yard, two-touchdown day in a 48-27 win over Northwestern at Wrigley Field was the best rushing performance in the country last season.
The only doubts about whether Leshoure might leave school were based on the possibility of an NFL lockout that could disrupt the coming season and the possibility that he could compete for the Heisman Trophy this fall. He averaged 130.5 yards a game in 2010, fifth-best in the country.
Leshoure said he considered both possibilities but, after praying and talking with NFL players, family and others, his gut feeling was he needed to enter the April draft.
"I believe that I've accomplished everything I can on the college level," he told a gym packed with students and teachers as he sat beside his mother, Jazz Jones.
Two of Leshoure's three seasons in Champaign ended with more losses than wins, but the Illini went 7-6 in 2010 and finished with the 38-14 bowl win over Baylor.
Mendenhall was the last Illini back to leave school early. He was drafted in 2008's first round by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Leshoure might not be taken that high.
He said he's been told and read that he could be drafted anywhere from the first round to the seventh, a range that could mean a difference of many millions of dollars for the 6-foot, 230-pound back.
"Me personally, I think I can be the No. 1 or No. 2 back in the draft," Leshoure said.
Leshoure is the second Illinois junior to announce that he'll enter the draft. Linebacker Martez Wilson said Monday he'll skip his final college season.
Another Illinois junior, defensive lineman Corey Liuget, is considered a candidate to leave early. School officials say they still don't know whether he will return. Many draft experts say he's a likely first-round pick.