Meet the Cubs: Mikel LeShoure

>> 5.13.2011

27 December 2010; 2010 Texas Bowl- Baylor Bears v Illinois Fighting Illini; Illinois Fighting Illini running back Mikel Leshoure (5) hoists his MVP trophy after the game; Illinois won 38-14

2.25 (57): Mikel LeShoure
          Running Back, Illinois

On the day he declared for the NFL Draft, Mikel LeShoure’s words matched those of thousands of other kids who’ve gone through the process. It’s practically boilerplate:

"I believe I have accomplished everything I can at the college level and want to go after my dream: playing in the NFL.”

For millions, playing in the NFL is a dream they’ll never have the opportunity to pursue, because they weren’t born with the talent. Mikel LeShoure was born with talent, but little else—Mikel LeShoure was born in prison.

Mikel, and his mother Jacqueline “Jazz” Frasier-Jones, faced an almost impossible climb up life’s mountain. Post-release, Jazz battled drug and alcohol addictions (and prior drug convictions), and worked multiple jobs to provide for Mikel. Meanwhile, Mikel spent the earliest years of his life with his aunt and stepmother; his father was in sporadic contact, fighting drug demons and prison sentences of his own. All three persevered, though: his mother has stayed clean and sober for 15 years, father got a good job, got back in contact, and was present at Mikel’s draft announcement, and Mikel racked up 4,652 yards and 52 rushing touchdowns at Champaign Centennial High School.

That’s Champaign, as in Champaign, Illinois—and from the sound of it, Illinois head coach Ron Zook didn’t let LeShoure, a three-star RB recruit per both Scout.com and Rivals.com leave his backyard. Listed at 6’-0”, 220 pounds, LeShoure had offers from Iowa and Wisconsin, as well as Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, and Boston College. He was Rivals’ 28th-ranked running back, nationally, and Scout’s 52nd.

Mikel saw some platoon time right away his freshman year, and even started a game. However, he got into a fight with teammate Jeff Cumberland, now a TE with the Jets, and Cumberland broke LeShoure’s jaw. LeShoure spent six weeks on a liquid-only diet, and he realized he could stand to drop his freshman fifteen. In the layoff between his freshman and sophomore year, Mikel went from 237 back down to a very lean (4.8% body fat) 228. In car circles, there’s a classic quote from Lotus founder Colin Chapman: “If you want to add speed, add lightness,” and that’s exactly what LeShoure did.

Besides his diet, Mikel knew that he had to make lifestyle and attitude changes, too, if he was to be the lead dog in the Illini’s four-tailback pack:

"I'm bigger, stronger, faster — all of that," LeShoure said. "The main things were my diet and not going out and partying, handling it and being smart. I stayed in more, just hanging out with the family. It was pretty easy because the No. 1 thing I thought about was football season and what would make me better."

With his maturing mind, maturing frame, and returned explosion, LeShoure notched multiple hundred-yard games his sophomore year, culminating in a 184-yard explosion against Fresno State that got him Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors. He used his size, speed, and improved conditioning to wear down defenses; his second-half YpC was 7.6, and all five of his rushing TDs came after halftime. He was named Honorable Mention All-Big Ten.

In his junior year, Mikel LeShoure blew everything up. I’ll just quote the official bio:

AWARDS & HONORS
• College Football Performance Awards Running Back of the Year (2010)
• Second-team All-American by the Associated Press (2010)
• Third-team All-American by Rivals.com and Phil Steele (2010)
• Honorable mention All-American by SI.com and Pro Football Weekly (2010)
• First-team All-Big Ten by both coaches and media (2010)
• 2010 Texas Bowl MVP
• 2010 Team MVP and Most Outstanding Offensive Back

RECORDS
• Illinois season rushing yards (1,697)
• Illinois season points scored (122)
• Illinois season total touchdowns (20) and rushing touchdowns (17 - tied with Rashard Mendenhall)
• Illinois season 100-yard rushing games (9) and consecutive 100-yard rushing games (5)
• Illinois single-game rushing yards - 330 vs. Northwestern at Wrigley Field, 11/20/10
• Finished sixth on the UI career rushing list (2,557) and second in school history in all-purpose yards (1,893)

Got all that? Mikel LeShoure was one of the best running backs in the nation in 2010, with some truly astounding numbers and performances. Of course, Michigan fans remember LeShoure’s five-touchdown game against them, but Mikel’s real masterwork was the Northwestern game at Wrigley Field, where he carried the ball a whopping thirteen times at a staggering 10.0 YpC clip, for a crushing 330 yards and two touchdowns. He was named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week, Walter Camp Foundation National Player of the Week, Rivals.com National Player of the Week and College Football Performance National Performer of the Week for that magnum opus.

Now, let’s see what the experts are saying.

  • Sideline Scouting:
    Positives: Great size, very strong build... Plays faster on tape than timed speed... Does a great job holding the football close to his body... Very quick feet, reaches his top speed almost immediately which makes him a big play threat... Gets his first 15-20 yards in a hurry, tough to contain... Runs through tackles, does a great job getting through trash and running between the tackles... Keeps his legs moving at all times, very hard to slow down... Runs with low pad level, delivers hits rather than absorb them... Great vision, waits for his blockers... Soft hands, is growing to be a capable receiver out of the backfield... Put up big numbers against tough Big 10 defenses, had only one game this year with less than 75 rushing yards... One of the few backs in this class that has the potential to be a true workhorse.

    Negatives: Really has only had one great season thus far... Often tries to break the big play rather than settle for a short gain, is prone to some negative yardage plays... Broke his jaw in 2008 after an altercation with a teammate at Illinois... Conditioning was a concern in the past... Takes most of his handoffs out of the shotgun in Illinois' spread option offense... Ran poorly at combine.

  • CBSSports.com:

    Inside running: Powerful back, gets behind his pads when running inside. Runs with lean, and has a small strike zone for which opponents to get a square hit. Good vision to cut away from traffic, very smooth in his cuts. Keeps legs moving after initial contact. Can jump over piles near the line. If the line provides a big hole, he has an elite burst to hit second level at full speed. Excellent ball security, keeps it high and tight. Must avoid stopping to run outside when defenders penetrate, instead taking the couple of yards behind his line. Usually uses his fullback when in the I-formation, but must trust him in short yardage situations. Sells fake handoffs.

    Outside running: Thick upper- and lower-body build but he has the vision and quick feet to bounce outside as if he were a smaller back. Exceptional burst makes him capable of turning the corner to break off chunks of yardage. Has patience and vision to take a pitch and find a cutback lane and explode through it. Keeps his pad level low outside, which combined with a low center of gravity and strong legs, make him tough to tackle. Not afraid to push a pile or carry a defender a few yards after initial contact. Does not go out of bounds right away, willing to lower a shoulder to get a couple of extra yards.

    Compares to: Ryan Mathews, Chargers -- Mathews had a stellar junior season but didn't stand out in San Diego, battling ankle problems until late in the season. Leshoure has the same combination of open-field burst and power, with a chance to be an impact rookie.

  • I don't know if I'm taking crazy pills or just not a subscriber or what, but SI.com apparently only lists "negatives" this year. They graded him at 2.82, "FIRST-YEAR CONTRIBUTOR," though:

    Negatives: Loses a lot of momentum when he must quickly change direction. Not a creative ball carrier. Does not consistently run with an aggressive style. Effective when he gives effort blocking yet not consistent in that area. Cannot run to daylight in the open field. Has an upright running style that leads to a lot of heavy hits.

  • Pro Football Weekly:

    Positives: Looks every bit the part with a chiseled, NFL physique with little body fat. Sturdy runner equipped to make a living between the tackles. Quick-footed and shifty and shows some shimmy in the hole. Can get to and through the second level. Barrels through contact. Can handle a heavy workload and responds to a lather. Soft hands. Physical cut blocker. Outstanding production — paced Big Ten running backs his final two seasons with 6.4 yards per rush. Has a 38-inch vertical jump.

    Negatives: Inconsistent down-to-down compete level. Does not attack holes, and too much of his production is blocked for him — was barely touched on long gains in career-best 330-yard performance against Northwestern. Is tight in the hips. Lacks extra gear to break away and play speed is not exceptional. Average vision and run instincts — the game does not come natural to him. Does not run angry and is not as powerful or as punishing as he could be.

    Summary: A downhill runner who looks every bit the part, Leshoure carried the offense and flashes starter-caliber ability, though he could require time to acclimate to a complementary big-back role and handle the physicality of the NFL game. Sheer size and bellcow potential will appeal most to physical, ground-oriented attacks such as that of the Dolphins, Steelers, Jets, Titans or Lions.

    But what do “the experts” really know? We have indisputable, infallible, visual evidence—the one and only prognosticator of future NFL success: YOUTUBE HIGHLIGHT REELS!!

    FIrst, the highlights of that incredible day against Northwestern:

    Next, we have some Illinois offense-only "every snap" videos; first the aforementioned Michigan game, and then the 2010 Texas Bowl vs. Baylor (the pic above is LeShoure accepting the Texas Bowl MVP trophy). Lots of non-LeShoure snaps, of course, but you’re getting the lumps along with the good stuff, here, too:

    Finally, a true and proper YouTube highlight reel, complete with hype music:

    LeShoure reminds me of another Lions running back, one who stood a very similar 6’-1”, 224: James Stewart. Stewart, like LeShoure, made a lot of hay between the tackles—and if Stewart lacked a certain je ne sais quoi in comparison, he probably hit a little bit harder. Both had excellent acceleration into “good” straight-line speed, both played faster than their reputation or clock times would suggest. Stewart, though, struggled mightily to stay healthy . . . let’s hope LeShoure doesn’t have that problem.

    LeShoure has wonderful stop/start for a man his size, and you see it deployed to his advantage many times up above. He also has nicely fluid legs that let him redirect and cut while keeping his shoulders square and his upper body quiet. He appears to have nice hands, but for some reason wasn’t used much in the passing game—and I don’t think he’ll be thrown to much here, either.

    His vision seems to be okay, but not as prescient as Best’s; he doesn’t have that Sandersesque “I’m cutting this way and setting my shoulders that way, thereby juking the guy in front of me and freezing the guy behind him” way of seeing the field. Sometimes he seems to go for the home run when he just needs to get four, and sometimes, he plows ahead when there was another lane open. Remember, he only started one full season; he has a lot of learning left to do. Further, unlike Kevin Smith, Mikel Leshoure has a lot of tread left on his tires—extremely important for a mostly-between-the-tackles back.

    In short, Mikel LeShoure looks to be an excellent complement to Jahvid Best, much the way Stewart combined with Fred Taylor in Jacksonville. This isn’t a “thunder and lightning” situation, like Tiki Barber and Ron Dayne, or Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott. Some folks had LeShoure rated as their #1 workhorse back due to Ingram’s injury concerns; he and Best will doubtlessly find a mutually beneficial workload ratio. Together, they’ll spell each other, make each other more effective, and back each other up—the Lions’ offense shouldn’t ever be without a tailback that can keep defenses honest.

    Researching this piece has me deep in thought about the power of the NFL, the power of people’s dreams, and the incredible diversity of paths these young men take to achieve glory. The truth is, whether you were born in a correctional facility, or grew up down the street from Bobby Layne’s house in an exclusive suburb, it takes incredible dedication, hard work, perseverance—and still, even, a little luck—to make it to the NFL. For most of these rookies, the hard part is just beginning . . . but for Mikel Leshoure, I bet, even two-a-days will still feel like a dream.

  • 8 comments:

    thewillhelm May 13, 2011 at 10:39 PM  

    I am not necessarily against the pick, he could be productive, but the pick is confusing when the interior OL struggles in run blocking. Peterman and Raiola are serviceable, but they are not good. No matter how good LeShoure may be, he can't run inside if the Lions have to endure another season of Raiola getting pushed into the backfield every time he sees a mediocre or better DT. I know there is still a free agency period left and they drafted an OT that can move inside to guard in the 7th round, but there are no guarantees in free agency and it would be a stretch to count on a 7th round draft pick to contribute this year. Mayhew has done a lot of work to build the defensive line, but this regime has done very little to help an offensive line that struggles to get any push up front, especially on the interior portion. Everything starts upfront. Every one saw last year how dramatically improved the defense was with a stout DL. A stout OL has the same effect. The Saints last year are a great example of this.

    thewillhelm May 13, 2011 at 10:39 PM  

    They rotated a ton of RBs into the lineup because of injuries. All of their backs were productive. They were productive because of the multiple pro-bowlers that the Saints have on their offensive line, not because they happen to have 5 stellar RBs on the roster. The NYGs are another good example. Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw continue to be productive while Derrick Ward tanks it when he signs with another team that does not have the same caliber of OL. Unless the Lions are able to replace either Peterman or Raiola or both, I would not expect much from LeShoure this year. The only RB in the history of the NFL that can run inside, behind a poor run blocking OL, is Barry Sanders. LeShoure is not Barry Sanders. They might have been a lot better off trading up to get Stefen Wisniewski instead and sticking with Maurice Morris for another year.

    Alvin2112,  May 13, 2011 at 11:35 PM  

    Great story on Leshoure, just goes to show that with,like you said, some perseverance a person can do almost anything. I'm really looking forward to seeing him and Best in action next year(if there is one). I too hoped for alittle more help up front with the interior Oline, but I still think this line is good enough to be in the low teens in rushing yards in the NFL blocking for quality running backs. We now have 2 quality runners, so there isn't any excuse for Linehan and the Oline to get some yards on the ground. Gonna be a fun year I think.

    Al

    Osterreich May 14, 2011 at 2:08 AM  

    This is definitely a topic that’s close to me so I’m happy that you wrote about it. I’m also happy that you did the subject some justice. Not only do you know a great deal about it, you know how to present in a way that people will want to read more.

    bigwalt2990,  May 14, 2011 at 4:42 PM  

    As many times as the Lions passed last season...does anyone actually think that number is going to go down with an added receiver and possibly Stafford at QB? They'll be throwing to set up the run. The O-line can be serviceable at run blocking and excellent at pass blocking for the time being. A healthy Jahvid and a Power runner can make the current run blocking effective.

    CJ81TD,  May 14, 2011 at 10:06 PM  

    So what is it? Is the Oline terrible, serviceable, or wildly underrated and actually above average??? I wish there could be a consensus. Grading o line play is a difficult thing to do but our little sliver of the internets seems to be filled with experts. I really do think if I could erase (MIB style) Backus whiffing on Julius Peppers and the resulting Stafford injury, people would be less separated on the issue. But I can't so we will have to live with Backus, Peterman and Gosder bashing from now until the end of time. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Assuming good health, any of the Lions Oline would get snapped up and likely start elsewhere if released.

    I'm all for upgrading talent with player options that will wear HB&S well into if not beyond their 2nd contract. Great analysis by TY as per usual even though it might of been a little heavy on the "vs. Michigan" clips.

    Don May 15, 2011 at 7:24 PM  

    People seem to think that a “power back” gets those short yardage plays. A short yardage “power back” is a myth. Everything less than 5 yards is the responsibility and credit of the Line. Not the “power back.” A stout guard will do much more for the short yardage game than Leshoure could do. The “power back's” power only matters when they hit the second level with LBs and DBs. Not at the line of scrimmage. Brandon Jacobs looks great when he is trucking LaRon Landry (http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-cant-miss-plays/09000d5d80a857c5/WK-1-Can-t-Miss-Play-Jacobs-express Look at the size of that hole!) and not so much when he meets D-Lineman at the line of scrimmage. So LeShoure could be great, but we won't know until they get some help on the inside. Offensive line play gets so very little credit for the good work that they do. The Saints did not find a “gem” with undrafted Chris Ivory last year. They have multiple pro-bowlers opening up running lanes. Tom Brady threw for 50 TDs in 2007 because he had 7 seconds to throw the ball on every play. The Giants were unlike any other team they had played, got a strong pass rush with their line, and held the Patriots to 14 points because they were able to hit Brady. I probably sound like a Debbie downer right now, but everyone is getting excited about the offense this year. The offense can't be successful if everything is getting blown up in the backfield.

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