Rashard Mendenhall is leaving Illinois to enter the NFL draft, adding another top prospect to a deep class of running backs.
Wide receivers Malcolm Kelly (Oklahoma) and Earl Bennett (Vanderbilt) were among the other players who announced Thursday they will pass up their remaining eligibility to enter the April draft. Clemson defensive end Phillip Merling is turning pro as well.
West Virginia wideout Darius Reynaud also will enter the draft, according to a person in the Mountaineers athletic department who spoke on condition of anonymity because the school had not yet made an announcement.
Mendenhall, perhaps the biggest star so far to bolt early from college, will skip his senior year at Illinois after rushing for a school-record 1,681 yards while leading the Illini to the Rose Bowl this season.
He thinks he'll be drafted in the first round after getting feedback from the NFL, and some draft analysts expect him to be selected that high.
``I'm just confident in my abilities and where I'll go in the draft,'' Mendenhall said during a news conference at his high school in Skokie, Ill.
Other attractive running backs in the draft include Texas' Jamaal Charles, Clemson's James Davis, Michigan's Mike Hart, Tulane's Mike Forte, Rutgers' Ray Rice and Central Florida's Kevin Smith. The list could get even longer if Darren McFadden (Arkansas), Felix Jones (Arkansas) and Steve Slaton (West Virginia) forgo their senior seasons.
The deadline for underclassmen to declare for the NFL draft is next Tuesday.
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 style.
He broke off a 79-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter and turned a screen pass into a 55-yard gain a few minutes later. He finished with 155 yards on 17 carries and 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.
``Rashard had an amazing season,'' Illinois coach Ron Zook said in a statement. ``His performance this year showed that he will be a very talented back at the next level.''
The 6-foot-4, 219-pound Kelly also is a potential first-round pick. He was Oklahoma's second-leading receiver this season with 49 receptions for 821 yards and nine touchdowns, helping the No. 8 Sooners finish 11-3. His 21 career touchdown catches rank second in school history behind Mark Clayton's 30.
``We're excited for Malcolm and his family,'' coach Bob Stoops said. ``He was an outstanding player in our program and we appreciate all of his efforts.''
Bennett leaves Vanderbilt as the leading receiver in Southeastern Conference history with 236 catches in three seasons. He has 28 more catches than Craig Yeast, who played four years at Kentucky.
``If I came back, there was always a risk that I could get injured,'' Bennett said. ``There were a lot of pluses and a lot of minuses. I couldn't go wrong with my decision whether I came back or whether I left.''
Commodores coach Bobby Johnson said he supported Bennett's decision to skip his senior season.
``This is one of the great things about America. You've got choices to make,'' Johnson said. ``I have no doubts that Earl will be a fantastic player in the NFL.''
Bennett finished 2007 with 75 receptions for 830 yards and five touchdowns. He is the only receiver in SEC history to have three 75-catch seasons.
Bennett has 20 career touchdown catches and ranks ninth in league history with 2,852 yards receiving.
In his freshman year, Bennett set an SEC record with 79 catches for 876 yards and nine touchdowns with current Denver Broncos starter Jay Cutler at quarterback for Vanderbilt.
The 5-foot-10 Reynaud was the top receiving threat in West Virginia's run-oriented spread offense. He had 733 yards receiving this season and scored two touchdowns in a 48-28 Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma, helping the Mountaineers (11-2) finish the season ranked No. 6 in the country.
His 64 catches tied for the fourth-most in a season in school history and his 12 TD catches matched Chris Henry's school record set in 2004. Reynaud was named to the all-Big East second team for a second straight season. He finished in the top 10 in school history in kickoff return yards and all-purpose yards.
A senior who is expected to graduate in May and earn eligibility for a fifth season, Reynaud and his longtime girlfriend have a 2-year-old daughter.
Merling had seven sacks and led Clemson with 17 tackles for loss, helping the Tigers (9-4) finish this season ranked No. 21 in the country. He was fourth on the squad with 78 total tackles.
``I advised him to remain for his senior year, but he felt this was the best decision for his future,'' Clemson coach Tommy Bowden said. ``I will help him any way I can as he prepares for the draft.''

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