It seems only a few obsessed fans nationally knew anything about Kevin Smith or Rashard Mendenhall before the season, their talents having been spent toiling in the obscure shadows of Conference USA and back-to-back two-win seasons, respectively. To those who noticed their production away from the headlines and national spotlight, though, their breakout junior years were not a surprise, and three months later it’s news to no one that both plan on making a living at those talents next fall.
Whatever questions still exist about Smith because of his level of opposition, he certainly has nothing left to prove:
Smith’s last season alone was a career – 450 carries over 14 games works out to a little over 32 points per game for the season, and he leaves with more carries for more yards per game over his three seasons than any other active running back in the country; the kid is the definition of a consistent, everydown back, has the size and the frame to add more bulk, has the speed to break nine runs longer than 40 yards in a single season and the durability to carry his otherwise completely mediocre team to its first conference championship in school history, in a season in which it scored at least 32 points in eleven of twelve games (once in a near-upset of Texas, a game UCF led in the fourth quarter) between the opener and the bowl game by feeding Smith the ball basically without reprieve. He had 149 on 5.5 per carry against the Longhorns, and was only really slowed by South Florida, which scored so many points on the Knight defense so quickly that Smith was only able to get the ball 18 times. He has no realistic hope of achieving anywhere in the range of 2,500 yards again as a senior (that is an absurd number, and not reasonably duplicable), and the competition in C-USA is not raising the bar, nor insuring him against injury – if he’s not a first round pick after the season he just delivered (tentative projections have Smith falling to the third, behind fast-rising conference mate Chris Johnson of East Carolina), he’s never going to be. Take the money and run, Kevin, and run and run and run.
Mendenhall has not officially declared – the assumptions in the Chicago Tribune last week were courtesy of Ron Zook, who left a meeting "with the impression that it was one of the last times he'd talk with the tailback as an Illinois football player," and Mendenhall’s mother, who said a news conference was scheduled for later this week at his old high school. Mendenhall, too, has little to stay for: after paying his dues behind Pierre Thomas, whom he significantly outperformed on many fewer carries in Illinois’ near-miss-filled 2006, he won Big Ten Offensive Playerof the Year, had more gaudy per carry averages throughout the season, had the best game of any individual running back (88 yards) against Ohio State, and torched USC in the second half of the Rose Bowl, where he averaged nine per carry. Mendenhall will probably be the first running back taken in the first round after Darren McFadden, depending on what other juniors come out, a year removed from being just a good backup plan:
The only downside of Mendenhall’s departure would be the hit sustained by Illinois’ burgeoning offensive monster, one of the most diverse and effective rushing attacks in the country supplemented by the scintillating potential of Juice Williams and Arrelious Benn as a pass-catch combo, which returns almost completely intact at the skill positions.
But a potential first-rounder’s gotta do what a potential first-rounder’s gotta do. Leave ‘em breathless, gentlemen.