A broken jaw last winter for Illinois running back Mikel Leshoure may have been a blessing in disguise. Now Leshoure’s a faster, better-conditioned runner who can chew up the yards.

Six weeks after his last chance to chew solid food, Illinois sophomore running back Mikel Leshoure couldn't get his mouth all the way open to eat a fast-food hamburger last winter. So he just rammed it past his front teeth.

"I had to push it into my mouth,'' Leshoure said. "I couldn't open my mouth too wide, but it was wide enough.”

It wasn't gourmet, but there was nothing better. Despite the rough days of healing from a broken jaw as a result of what is believed to have been an altercation with teammate Jeff Cumberland over a cell phone, Leshoure could finally eat. While his jaw was wired shut, his weight dropped at one point to 214 pounds, the lowest since his junior year at Champaign Centennial High School.

It may have been a blessing in disguise. Now Leshoure’s a faster, better-conditioned runner who can chew up the yards.

About 17 pounds lighter than last season, the 6-foot, 220-pound Leshoure set career highs in consecutive weeks, rushing for 78 against Indiana and 122 yards at Purdue before gaining 150 and scoring on a 70-yard touchdown run against Michigan last weekend. He's the lead running back when Illinois (2-6 overall, 1-5 in the Big Ten) plays at Minnesota (5-4, 3-3) Saturday (11 a.m., Big Ten Network).

"I'm faster, more versatile,'' Leshoure said. "My weight went down. It allowed me to perform better. It's a big difference. You can tell in my play.  I move a lot different. There's a burst. The biggest change is in my stamina. You don't have to come out after a couple plays.''

Climbing past senior Daniel Dufrene and sophomore Jason Ford on the depth chart, Leshoure leads Illinois with 435 yards rushing despite missing one game while serving a suspension for a violation of undisclosed team rules.

His latest opportunity might not have come unless he lost the weight – and kept it off.

With his jaw wired shut, Leshoure stayed away from the team's training table in Memorial Stadium and returned home to his mother's dinner table, just about 10 minutes from campus on Champaign's west side. He lived off soup, shakes and smoothies. Experiments with food in the blender didn't go well.

"One time I tried blended-up spaghetti,'' he said. "We put a little water in it. It was terrible.''

The other challenge was staying away from fattening food once the wires came off. Leshoure's mother, Jazz, knows her way around the kitchen, but the family favorites are no longer on the menu.

"I don't cook soul food as much,'' Jazz said. "The biggest thing for him was to cut back on the fried chicken. We do more baked chicken now. He's teaching his mom to eat better. I even lost weight.''

Leshoure wasn't surprised when Dufrene and Ford started the season as the lead backs, because that's how they finished last season.

"He ran harder (against Michigan) than maybe I've ever seen him,'' said Illinois coach Ron Zook.

While Leshoure wants to be an every-down back, the Illini must be able to count on him. Leshoure felt he'd learned a lesson after the suspension.

"I came out with a whole new mindset,'' Leshoure said. "I wanted them to know they could trust me, and I would be there for them. My role has changed overall. Coaches expect a lot from me. Along with that comes responsibility. I've learned how to take the responsibility.''

NOTES: Illinois tight ends Michael Hoomanawanui (ankle) and Hubie Graham (back), wide receiver Arrelious Benn (ankle), safety Donsay Hardeman (neck) and wide receiver A.J. Jenkins (knee) would return from injuries this week, Zook said. Hoomanawanui and Benn have struggled to recover from high ankle sprains, and Hardeman joined his teammates this week by dressing for practice Monday…The Big Ten is investigating whether Michigan offensive tackle Mark Ortmann punched Illinois defensive tackle Corey Liuget in the groin after Liuget recovered a fumble in the third quarter. Initially, Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez planned no disciplinary action…Minnesota defensive back Michael Carter will be allowed to play against Illinois following his arrest early Monday outside a campus pizza parlor, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported. Carter was charged with obstructing and underage consumption.

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.