Illinois RB Leshoure weighing NFL decision

Illinois' Mikel Leshoure is projected to be a third-round pick in the NFL draft if he comes out, according to ESPN draft analyst Steve Muench. Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The clock is ticking on Illinois junior running back Mikel Leshoure.

Leshoure has until Jan. 15 to decide whether to return to the Illini for his senior season or enter the NFL draft. Leshoure declined an interview request, so it’s hard to say what he’s weighing his decision on, but here are some thoughts.

One possible reason to leave school early is his stock is hot. He rushed for 917 yards and 10 touchdowns in his last five games. He drew national attention with his school-record 330-yard performance against Northwestern at Wrigley Field and shined in Illinois’ win over Baylor in the Texas Bowl with 184 yards and three touchdowns.

Even if Leshoure returns, there’s no guarantee he would have a better season than 2010. He set Illinois’ season records with 1,697 rushing yards, 122 points, 20 touchdown and nine 100-yard games.

There is a chance Leshoure could take another step in his development as a senior. Outside of breaking Robert Holcombe’s career rushing record, Leshoure could be a Heisman Trophy sleeper. If Illinois were to contend for the Big Ten and Leshoure rushed in the vicinity of 2,000 yards, his name would have to be discussed.

ESPN NFL draft analyst Steve Muench took a long look at Leshoure in the Texas Bowl and saw him as potential third-round pick.

“I think he goes in the third round if he comes out, but again his timed speed will have an impact,” Muench said. “As far as coming out or staying, I always say that it's a personal decision, and I don't know his financial situation. But I think the more experience players get at the collegiate level the better, and he could greatly improve his stock by returning to school for another year and working on his weaknesses.”

Muench saw plenty of strengths and weaknesses when watching Leshoure.

“At 227 pounds, he has impressive lateral mobility and good burst,” Muench said. “For those looking for proof check out his 13-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. He’s also a willing pass-blocker, and he can catch the ball out of the backfield, but he is a bit unpolished. Leshoure lacks ideal instincts, and he gets caught dancing in the hole on occasion, so he leaves some yards on the field. He needs to work on his pass-blocking technique and snatching the ball out of the air instead of trapping it against his frame as well.

"To expand a little more, I would say scouts are going to want to see how well he runs. He appears quicker than fast on film. I’m also a little concerned about his awareness in pass protection. He takes a split second too long to locate pressure at times, and I think it makes him a little less aggressive. On the other hand, he has a great deal of upside. He runs hard, he is quick and, like I said, he has above average lateral mobility for a big back. His production down the stretch doesn’t hurt either.”

Leshoure is expected to meet with Illinois coach Ron Zook to discuss his future on Thursday, according to the Champaign News-Gazette. An announcement could be made sometime this week.