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Mendenhall to skip senior year to enter NFL draft

SKOKIE, Ill. -- Rashard Mendenhall will skip his senior year
at Illinois and enter the NFL draft after rushing for a
school-record 1,681 yards while leading the Illini on an unexpected
run to the Rose Bowl.

"I am blessed in the fact that I was able to have the kind of
year that I had, and my team was able to have the kind of year it
had," Mendenhall said during a news conference Thursday at Niles
West High School, where he played before joining the Illini.

After five straight losing seasons, Illinois went 9-4 and upset
No. 1 Ohio State in Columbus late in the season on the way to its
first Rose Bowl appearance in 24 years. Although the season ended
with a 49-17 loss to Southern California, Mendenhall went out in
stylish fashion.

Quiet in the first half, he broke off a 79-yard touchdown run
early in the third quarter and turned a screen into a 55-yard gain
a few minutes later. He finished the game with 155 yards rushing on
17 carries, caught five passes for 59 yards.

Besides setting the school's single-season rushing mark, the
5-foot-11 Mendenhall also set records for rushing touchdowns (17),
total touchdowns (19), 100-yard games (eight), all-purpose yards
(1,999) and scoring (114 points) in his first season as the
Illini's featured back.

Mendenhall is confident he'll be drafted in the first round
after getting feedback from the NFL, and some draft experts expect
him to go that high. His competition is stiff.

The list of running backs already includes Texas' Jamaal
Charles, Michigan's Mike Hart, Tulane's Mike Forte and Rutgers' Ray
Rice. And it could get longer if West Virginia's Steve Slaton and
Arkansas' Darren McFadden, a two-time Heisman Trophy runner-up,
skip their senior seasons.

"I'm just confident in my abilities and where I'll go in the
draft," Mendenhall said.

Mendenhall probably would have been a candidate for the Heisman
Trophy had he returned, and Illinois would have been a favorite in
the Big Ten. The Illini still could contend with quarterback Juice
Williams leading the offense.

"Rashard had an amazing season," coach Ron Zook, who is in
Hawaii for the Hula Bowl, said in a statement. "His performance
this year showed that he will be a very talented back at the next
level. I am excited for Rashard as he enters this next phase of his
football career. I can't thank him enough for his dedication to the
Illinois football program and wish him nothing but the best in the
NFL."