In the weeks leading up to the 2008 NFL Draft (April 26-27), BR.com will offer a look into the top prospects by position. This week, running backs are up. Illinois' Rashard Mendenhall is spotlighted.
They say you should strike while the iron is hot, and for running back Rashard Mendenhall, that iron was practically volcanic.
After two years splitting carries at Illinois, Mendenhall came off the bench for a record-setting junior campaign that saw him burst onto the national scene - and earn a first-round grade in the upcoming NFL Draft.
The 5-foot-10, 225-pound running back earned Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors after rushing for a school-record 1,681 yards and 17 touchdowns, adding 34 catches for 318 yards and two scores last season.
Such production, which was a big part of Illinois' first Rose Bowl appearance in 24 years, led Mendenhall to forego his final season of eligibility for the next level.
"My first two years I wasn't on the field as much," he said. "My junior year was my first year of being on the field, and I was productive because of it."
A native of Skokie, Ill., Mendenhall originally became a Fighting Illini to be in the same backfield as his brother, Walter. Rashard spent two years buried on the depth chart, trying to make coaches notice when he did get into the game.
As a sophomore, Mendenhall offered glimpses of what could be, finishing second on the team with 640 yards and five touchdowns on 78 attempts, mere child's play considering the way he finished his collegiate career.
"I knew I had to wait my turn and I knew whenever it happened I would present myself and I'd be
able to have this opportunity and be at this level," Mendenhall explained. "I was able to do it. I got my chance and my opportunity my junior year and I was able to do it."
With a compact, powerful frame, Mendenhall earns his yards in between the tackles, but possesses sneaky speed around the edges.
For proof, one only has to look at the NFL Combine, where Mendenhall ran a 4.45-second 40-yard dash, just slightly behind Arkansas' Darren McFadden (4.33), who is considered the best running back in the Class of 2008.
Mendenhall also impressed on the bench press, throwing up 225 pounds 26 times.
Now, he is trying to separate himself from McFadden, whose off-field character issues have caused many to question his status at the top of draft boards.
Mendenhall thinks that his one-year explosion should place him ahead of McFadden.
"That's where I see myself," he said. "But as far as what is going to happen and where I am projected that is not under my control. All I can do is present myself well and do well at the Combine. From then on, the NFL teams have got to decide that."
Still, with a lack of experience that many seniors or longtime starters may have, Mendenhall knows some clubs could consider him green.
"There are positives and negatives to it," said the underclassman. "One of them is you haven't taken a lot of the beating as some of the senior guys. But at the same time you don't have as much experience. It's definitely a double-edged sword as far as being a junior and coming out early."
Even though Mendenhall hasn't seen as much action as many of his counterparts in the draft, he shouldn't be waiting long to hear his name called on selection weekend.
All that it took to solidify that standing was a chance to take the field.