Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Minutes after bulldozing cornerback Patrick Nixon-Youman for a first down during an Illinois practice this spring, Mikel LeShoure recited a line all young running backs should remember.
"Sometimes you've got to dish the hits before you can take them," he said.
Last year, LeShoure and Fighting Illini teammate Jason Ford weren't fully equipped to absorb the punishment or make opposing defenders pay. Both backs played as true freshmen and enjoyed some success, as Ford led the team with eight rushing touchdowns and LeShoure added 126 rush yards and a touchdown in nine games.
But like many freshmen, both Ford and LeShoure didn't have Big Ten bodies. They were the right size -- Ford at 6-foot, 220 pounds; LeShoure at 6-foot, 240 pounds -- but the wrong shape.
"I came in out of shape," Ford said. "I really didn't lift weights in high school because we didn't really have a weight program, so everything was kind of new to me."
Ford and LeShoure got most of the work in Illinois' spring game Saturday, combining for 93 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries (5.5 yards per carry).
Ford remains around the same weight as he played at last season -- he played this spring at 222 pounds, with the hope of getting down to 220 -- but he reduced his body fat from 8.9 percent last fall to 5.9 percent in the spring. Now sturdier than stockier, Ford's size comes in handy in the red zone, where he does most of his damage.
"I feel a lot stronger, a lot quicker, a lot faster," he said. "I'm in better shape than I was last year. Last year, I got kind of winded sometimes, but this year, I feel pretty good."
LeShoure has lost 13 or 14 pounds and 3 to 4 percent of his body fat since last summer. Part of the weight loss came after he sustained a broken jaw in early November after an altercation with a teammate, reported to be wide receiver Jeff Cumberland.
With his jaw wired shut for six weeks, LeShoure couldn't eat normally and dropped in weight. And even after his jaw healed, he worked to keep the weight off. LeShoure now checks in between 220 to 225 pounds.
"When I got back, I didn't want to just rush and add food and stuff," he said. "I just kept my body the way it was, and it paid off. I feel a lot quicker on my feet, knees feel a little higher."
LeShoure feels comfortable with his current size, while Ford is "pretty close" to his goal weight.
"The weight room doesn't just happen," Illinois head coach Ron Zook explained. "It takes time for your body to change."
Illinois slipped to fifth in the Big Ten in rushing offense last fall after leading the league in each of the past two seasons. Expectations have been boosted for the backs this fall, and LeShoure doesn't shy away from pressure.
For starters, he wears No. 5 for the Illini, the same jersey donned by former Illini star running back Rashard Mendenhall in 2007. LeShoure decided to keep his high school number despite Mendenhall's recent success.
"You can think of it like [pressure], but also it's a challenge, too," he said. "It pushes you to get better."
Both LeShoure and Ford accepted the challenge in the offseason.
"We feel like what we did last year was not our potential," LeShoure said. "We're going to set the bar higher."