Is former Illinois running back Rashard Mendenhall a one-year wonder or a powerful, speedy back who hasn't taken many hits before entering the NFL draft this weekend? It depends on who's doing the talking. Everyone is selling something in the human stock market known as the NFL draft.
Former Illinois running back Rashard Mendenhall started only one game in his first two seasons, then earned Big Ten Conference MVP after a record-setting season last fall.
Is he a one-year wonder or a powerful, speedy back who hasn't taken many hits before entering the NFL draft this weekend? It depends on who's doing the talking. Everyone is selling something in the human stock market known as the NFL draft.
The 5-foot-11, 210-pound Mendenhall is expected to go in the first round Saturday. He set single-season school records with 1,681 yards rushing and 19 overall touchdowns as a junior last season as Illinois posted a 9-4 record overall and reached the Rose Bowl for the first time in 24 years.
"People who don't give me a chance, I will prove myself one way or another,'' Mendenhall said.
Illinois senior middle linebacker J Leman hopes to hear his name called after a career as a college overachiever. An ankle injury suffered in the Rose Bowl and surgery kept him from performing in some workouts at the NFL combine, but he's selling his work ethic and story as an underdog who relies on his heart.
"I don't know what will happen,'' said Leman, who was unsure if he would be drafted or sign as a free agent after the seventh and final round Sunday. One thing for sure, Leman, like everyone else, is pitching something.
While runners such as Rutgers' Ray Rice, Michigan's Mike Hart, Oregon's Jonathan Stewart and Arkansas' Darren McFadden have a longer track record, Illinois running backs coach Reggie Mitchell said Mendenhall has an advantage of entering the draft without a lot of wear and tear.
"The thing I've been telling scouts is he doesn't have a lot of miles on him,'' Mitchell said. "His football is ahead of him.''
Mendenhall would be the first Illinois player taken in the first round since Kevin Hardy and Simeon Rice went Nos. 2 and 3 in the 1996 draft. Mendenhall visited the Cowboys, Broncos, Bengals and Jets. The Panthers traveled to Champaign to meet him.
The Bears, who have the No. 14 pick, might take a running back if they overlook a need on the offensive line. The Lions and Cardinals, who follow with the next two picks, are also apparently looking for a running back.
"Draft day is going to be intense for me,'' Mendenhall said. "Guys who have been through it say it's the longest day of their lives until your name is called.''
Analyst Mike Mayock of NFL Network called Mendenhall "the best back in the draft.'' But he still had Mendenhall as the third running back taken, going in the 16th pick to the Cardinals after McFadden and Stewart were already taken.
Draft analyst Nolan Nawrocki of Pro Football Weekly also had Mendenhall as the third running back taken in the draft and going to the Cardinals. In his analysis for the publication, Nawrocki said Mendenhall "has sheer strength and speed and looks like an absolute phenom but must prove that he wants to be great.''
Mendenhall boosted his stock by timing a 4.45 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine in February.
Said Mitchell: "He was 14 of 16 on fourth-and-one and third-and-one this year, so I think he's a can't-miss guy. We're hoping he'll be a top-15 pick because it would be great for him and great for us. You can tell a kid, 'Hey, Rashard Mendenhall played in this system for three years and now look at him.' We've been fortunate in the last three years here that Jason Davis and Pierre Thomas went to the NFL, and now Rashard.''
The 6-2, 245-pound Leman underwent surgery in January to repair a bruised ankle bone, an injury suffered when his ankle was stepped on during the Rose Bowl. Leman didn't return to jogging until March, running in April and working through linebacker agility drills until the past two weeks, he said.
Thus, he was unable to perform on-the-field drills during the combine. To his credit, Leman attempted to spin a negative into a positive during interviews with NFL team personnel.
"I told them my story,'' he said. "My story is a kid who had only one big-time offer for college. That was Illinois. No coach who has ever taken a chance on me has regretted it. The only ones who regretted it were the Ohio States and Michigans. I'm a football player. I will make plays and play with passion. I'll be the hardest worker.''
Leman finished as a first-team all-Big Ten pick and a second-team All-America selection. He made 284 tackles over the past two seasons. But with Leman, it goes back to speed.
"He just needs to get a chance," said Illinois coach Ron Zook, a former NFL defensive coordinator. "He made an awful lot of plays and tackles against pretty good people. In my my opinion, he can play.''
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.