I'm not going to say "I told you so" when it comes to the play of Rashard Mendenhall, Illinois' fast-emerging running back. But I wonder what all those skeptics and naysayers who predicted that he was vastly overrated--by me, that is--are saying today.
So let's re-examine how the former Niles West product was discovered and how then Illinois coach Ron Turner recruited him and why I believe, if he stays healthy, he will be a certain first-round selection in the NFL draft, maybe after this season.
On a tip from a friend, I first saw Mendenhall as a sophomore. He was muscular and fast. They don't come that way on the North Shore very often. On the first play that I observed, he swept left, like the great Jim Brown, and went 75 yards for a touchdown. He broke a tackle and blew by everyone. I was amazed by his burst and strength.
As a senior, I ranked him among the top 10 players in the nation. Then he got hurt and missed part of his senior season. But he ended up among my top 15. I never penalize a kid for being injured, only for poor performance. He was the best running back I have seen in the Chicago area since 1979, better than Alvin Ross, Robert Farmer and Jimmy Smith.
Ron Turner did an exceptional job of recruiting him. Turner brought in Rashard's older brother Walter, a borderline prospect, and Rashard committed to Illinois before Notre Dame, Michigan and Ohio State had a chance to get in the door. It was Illinois' greatest recruiting coup in the Chicago area since they landed Jim Juriga in 1981.
Other recruiting analysts liked Mendenhall but no one rated him as highly as I did. They said I overrated him, especially after he got off to a bad start at Illinois. He wasn't an instant impact player. Now he is showing what he showed me in high school, a great combination of size, speed and power.
Two years ago, I took a hammering on him from Websites who love to take shots when a kid doesn't perform up to expectations. But now I feel justified in my high ranking and putting him on my All-America team. He would have played in the U.S. Army All-America Game if he hadn't been hurt. That's the issue here. Unfortunately, Mendenhall has a history of injuries. But if he stays healthy, he could be a great one.