Illini Running Back Mendenhall Has Decision To Make: Turn Pro Or Stay In School?

Rashard Mendenhall feels like a high school recruit again

Dec. 28, 2007

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (AP) -No wonder Rashard Mendenhall feels like a high school recruit again.

Everyone wants to know where he's headed next, only this time they're asking if Illinois' running back will return for his senior season or turn pro.

Just don't expect any answers from him. Not now, anyway.

"I'm not going to share that," Mendenhall said Friday when asked what would keep him in school.

No. 13 Illinois is about to play No. 6 Southern California in its first Rose Bowl in 24 years in large part because of Mendenhall, who has 1,526 yards and 16 rushing touchdowns this season. Whether that will be his final college game remains to be seen.

Mendenhall acknowledged he has little left to accomplish in school, that he's not interested in making a run at the Heisman Trophy. Yet, he's still trying to decide whether to turn pro.

There would be millions of reasons to do so - one for every dollar he would earn - if he thought he would be picked in the first round, and coach Ron Zook believes Mendenhall has the talent. The question is: Is he more likely to be picked that early this year, or would a senior season give him a boost?

"That's one thing that I don't know that anybody can really (say)," Zook said. "The NFL has their own agenda on that thing. I, personally, think he's a first-round draft choice potential. Now, whether that's this year or next year, that's something that he's going to have to use his information. I'd hate to see him go too early because I really believe he's a first-round potential guy.

"Whether it's this year or next year, he has that kind of God-given ability."

It's tough to argue, considering Mendenhall is second in the Big Ten and eighth in the nation in rushing in his first season as a starter. He ran for 640 yards, averaging 8.2 per carry, while backing up Pierre Thomas as a sophomore last season, and he certainly took advantage of his chance this year.



"He's one of the top prospects with one of the top teams, so why not (turn pro)?" Southern California linebacker Keith Rivers said.

Mendenhall's answers were vague.

What's left to accomplish in college?

"In my mind, it's not too much," he said. "I'm not really big on accolades and awards, doing this and that. In the game I'm playing, I try to do the best I can."

Would a run at the Heisman Trophy lure him back?

"Not really," Mendenhall said. "Whatever I'm doing, I'm just going to try to do the best I can and make the best decision."

What would be the reason to return?

"I'm not really sure," Mendenhall said.

He has filed paperwork with the NFL, which will assess his draft potential, and is weighing the pros and cons of turning pro with his mother, Zook and one of his high school coaches.

But he said the decision won't hinge on where he expects to go in the draft. He might turn pro even if he doesn't anticipate going in the first round, although Zook said his potential position should be "a big thing" in the process.

"If you can go to college and make $15 million in one year, that's pretty good wages," the coach said.

But Mendenhall said there are other factors.

"I think there are just some things I've got to get together and assess," he said.

Now, he's about to face a Trojans defense that ranks fourth in the nation against the run and features several players who will likely wind up in the NFL. On the surface, it seems like the sort of game that could either push Mendenhall to the pros or reel him in for one more year.

Not that he sees it that way.

"I'm going to assess things over the whole season," he said.

And it's been quite a season.

Zook had so much confidence in Mendenhall that he pinned the Illini's hopes on Mendenhall's shoulders - or legs - at the outset. At least he gave his running back a warning, though.

A day before Big Ten media day, Zook called Mendenhall and told him: "Rashard, I'm going to put a little pressure on you, if it's all right with you, tomorrow in the Big Ten meetings. He said, 'What do you mean?' I'm going to tell them if you have the kind of year we think you're capable of having that we have a chance to be a pretty good offensive football team. He said, 'Coach, I want that challenge. I want that opportunity."'

Now, Mendenhall has to decide which opportunity he wants next.