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10 Best Running Backs in Illinois History

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These are the ten best running backs in Illinois football history:

The Illinois Fighting Illini has produced some great running backs through the years. These are ten of the best running backs the school has ever produced.

10. Red Grange

Career Stats: 

388 Carries, 2074 Yds., 5.4 Avg., 33 Total Touchdowns

82 att. 40 comp. 575 Yds

Harold Edward “Red” Grange was football’s first superstar. Grange played in an era known more for its coaches than players. At the turn of the century, college football was known for coaches like Fielding Yost, Amos Alonzo Stagg, and Knute Rockne. Grange was the first player to break this mold. Grange’s most famous game was the first at Memorial Stadium in Champaign on October 18, 1924. “The Galloping Ghost” ran the opening kickoff for a safe place buy clenbuterol touchdown, the first of his five touchdowns that day, and intercepted two passes.

Grange became the last player to play in a college and professional game in the same season. The NFL passed “The Red Grange Rule” in 1926 to prevent players from doing so. Injuries and corruption hampered Grange’s professional career. However, Grange’s star power helped propel a fledgling NFL into a credible major league sport.

9. Jim Grabowski

Career Stats:

579 Carries, 2878 Yds., 5.0 Avg., 24 TDs

15 Rec, 144 Yds

Jim Grabowski might be the most decorated running back in school history. Grabowski was the Big Ten’s all-time leading rusher when he left Champaign. He was an All-American in 1964 and 1965, finishing third in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1965. Grabowski was Sporting News co-player of the year and received the Chicago Tribune Silver Football as Big Ten Most Valuable Player. The Chicago Taft High School product was also an Academic All-American during his time with the Illini.

After his career with the Illini was over, Grabowski was drafted by the Green Bay Packers ninth overall in the 1966 NFL Draft. He and fellow rookie Donny Anderson would form the “Gold Dust Twins” backfield and win two Super Bowls with the Packers.

8. Pierre Thomas

Career Stats:2007

453 Carries, 2545 Yds., 5.6 Avg., 20 Tds.

57 Rec., 411 Yds., 3 Tds.

59 Returns, 1495 Yds., 1 Td

Unfortunately for Pierre Thomas, he was a good running back on some awful Illinois football teams. The Illini were 7-25 during his time in Champaign, including winning two Big Ten games. After playing sparingly as a freshman, Thomas led the Illini in rushing yards in his sophomore, junior, and senior seasons. Thomas finished his career second in all-purpose yards (4,451) in school history.

Thomas was signed as an undrafted free agent by the New Orleans Saints in 2007. He played eight seasons in the NFL, winning Super Bowl XLIV with the New Orleans Saints.

7. Mikel Leshoure

Career Stats:

424 Carries, 2557 Yds., 6.0 Avg., 23 Tds.

37 Rec, 439 Yds., 5 Tds.

Mikel Leshoure might be the most explosive running back on this list. He and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase formed one of Illinois football’s best running back/quarterback combinations. Leshoure and Scheelhaase were equally dangerous at the mesh point on zone reads. Leshoure did not play much as a freshman but showed explosive running as a sophomore when he gained 734 yards on 108 carries. Leshoure’s junior season was his best, gaining an Illinois single-season record 1,697 yards and 17 touchdowns — also a single-season record.

Leshoure finished his junior season as a Second-Team All-American and a First-Team All-Big Ten performer. He saved his best game for his last against Baylor in the Texas Bowl, where he gained 184 yards and scored three touchdowns. Leshoure also holds the single-game record for rushing yards with 330 against Northwestern.

6. Rocky Harvey

Career Stats:

536 Carries, 2669 Yds., 20 Tds.

57 Rec., 566 Yds., 4 Tds.

35 Returns, 738 Yds.

One of Rocky Harvey’s best games came as a sophomore. On the road at Michigan, Harvey had one of the best games of his career. The Wolverines were 24.5-point underdogs to the ninth-ranked team in the country. Illinois football had lost three consecutive games, their last by 30 points to Minnesota. However, no one told the Illini they were supposed to lose this game. Harvey led the team in rushing and receiving yards that day, helping lead Illinois to a 35-29 upset of the Wolverines.

The Illinis’ 5-foot-9 diminutive dynamo was one of Illinois’ best all-purpose backs finishing his career with 3,235 yards from scrimmage and 24 total touchdowns.

5. Thomas Rooks

Career Stats:

540 Carries, 2828 Yds., 18 Tds.

98 Rec. 643 Yds., 6 Tds.

The 1983 Illinois Fighting Illini is perhaps the best team in school history. They are the only team to go undefeated in conference play (the 1951 team tied one game). Thomas Rooks was a significant part of that. His claim to fame was scoring the game-winning touchdown against Ohio State to keep the undefeated streak alive. He ran for 85 yards that day, none more critical than that 21-yard touchdown with 66 seconds left in the game. Rooks is also one of the best all-purpose running backs in school history, with a program-best 55 receptions, the most by a running back.

4. Antoineo Harris

Career Stats:

674 Carries, 2942 Yds., 22 Tds.

22 Rec., 166 Yards

Antoineo Harris was an essential piece of the 2001 Big Ten Championship team that went to the Sugar Bowl. Harris and Rocky Harvey were a formidable 1-2 punch in the backfield, combining for over 1,200 yards and ten touchdowns. Harris led the ’01 Illini in rushing that season with 626 yards. However, Harris’ best season with Illinois football would be his senior year. Harris rushed for 1,330 yards and set personal bests in carries (44) against Northwestern, yards (195) against Purdue, and touchdowns (4) against Indiana.

3. Rashard Mendenhall

Career Stats: 

388 carries, 2539 yards, 6.5 avg, 22 Tds.

59 recs., 564 yds., 5 Tds.

Mendenhall was arguably the most memorable players for this generation of Illini fans. Along with Juice Williams, Mendenhall was a dynamic playmaker that captured everyone’s attention. Mendenhall went on to have a successful career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who drafted him with the 23rd overall pick. Afterwards, the Skokie native had two 1000 yard rushing seasons on some good Pittsburgh Steelers teams. He and Juice Williams were among the most explosive quarterback-running back tandems in school history. Correspondingly, Williams and Mendenhall combined for nearly 2,300 yards in 2007.

In 2007, Mendenhall and Juice Williams led the Illini to a 9-4 record and a Rose Bowl appearance.

2. Chase Brown

Career Stats:

676 Carries, 3558 Yds., 5.3 Avg., 18 Tds.

58 Rec., 521 Yds., 3 Tds.

The Illinois Fighting Illini rode running back Chase Brown to its best season in over a decade. Brown had one of the best single seasons in program history. When Brown played well, the Illini had a chance to win. If he didn’t they had no shot. Additionally, Brown is second all-time in rushing yards in school history and has the third-best single season in program history. As a result, Brown finished his career as an All-Big Ten Second Team performer and won the John Cornish Trophy as the best Canadian player in the NCAA.

1. Robert Holcombe

Career Stats:

943 Carries, 4,105 Yds, 25 Tds.

72 Rec., 619 Yds., 3 Tds.

It’s hard for a school’s all-time leading rusher not to be its best running back of all time. Robert Holcombe is the all-time leading rusher for Illinois football. The running backs on this list might be more explosive or exciting than Holcombe, but none were more consistent than the Mesa, Arizona, native. Holcombe broke 1,000 yards in three of four seasons in Champaign. He also has the second-best single-game rushing total with 315 yards. Holcombe would get drafted by the St. Louis Rams and win Super Bowl XXXIV.

Armchair Illini is a comprehensive site dedicated to covering University of Illinois Athletics owned and operated by Alex Kyi. Dante Pryor has been writing about College Football for years on Saturday Blitz and is now the Lead Football Author for Armchair Illini.

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