When Ke'Shawn Vaughn selected a Fighting Illini hat on Signing Day in February 2015, the Illini added a potential star to what already looked like it'd be one of the program's most immediately impactful running back recruiting classes in recent memory.
Vaughn, the crown jewel of the group in terms of national hype (and the only four-star recruit), is a running back not unlike some of the ones you've seen at Alabama in the last few years. Obviously he's not as talented as somebody like Trent Richardson, but he combines the power to break arm tackles with enough speed to blow by linebackers after cutting through a hole.
And yet, even after Vaughn's commitment, no incoming running back was expected to get more time at the position than freshman early-enrollee Dre Brown. Brown and JUCO newcomer Henry Enyenihi, the third back of four in the 2015 class, competed for the back-up spot behind Josh Ferguson during spring practices.
By several reports, Brown had taken control of the battle from the more experienced Enyenihi because of his ability to do it all in the backfield. A key responsibility of a back-up running back is to aggressively take on pass rushers, and Brown was reportedly quite successful in the passing game.
That, combined with his superior shiftiness in comparison with the more powerful Enyenihi, led to Brown coming close to securing the number two slot by the end of spring practices... and then he tore his ACL in a non-contact drill during practice.
Brown could likely have come back this season, as his injury occurred over four months ago now, but there is enough depth at the position for Illinois to allow the freshman to redshirt and come back next season with four years of eligibility remaining.
Following Brown's injury, Enyenihi was the natural replacement at the number two slot in the depth chart. And in the conclusion to spring practices, the spring game, Enyenihi looked more than capable of handling 10-20 snaps a game. He finished that day with 92 rushing yards on 16 carries, including a 43-yard scamper.
But in Rantoul, Enyenihi was quickly passed up by the promising freshman Vaughn. Enyenihi will still see time at the position this year: he's the number three back on the team and, as the bowling ball of the group, will probably come in for a few short yardage situations this season.
The fourth and as of yet unmentioned running back of the Illini's 2015 class is freshman Reggie Corbin from Washington, D.C. Corbin is a small, but muscular five-foot-ten and 190 pounds. He's in the mighty mouse mold, somewhat similar to Josh Ferguson, and had a small chance of contributing to the 2015 Illini on special teams or as a third-down back if Ferguson were worn down.
Even though Corbin was only fourth on the depth chart, it's still not easy to swallow the season-ending torn labrum he suffered this Thursday. The Illini already lost one freshman at the position to a season-ending injury in the spring, and now two of the three electric running backs from the recruiting class of 2015 won't see the playing time they earned in practice.
Still, if there's any joy to be found in a consolation prize, Vaughn was perhaps the most ready of the freshman to contribute immediately and thus least likely to benefit from a redshirt season.
Vaughn's physical prowess is already at a level surpassing Brown and Corbin, and his contrasting, one-cut running style is a better complement to Ferguson's water-bug-trapped-in-a-spinning-tea-cup approach than the other two. It should be acknowledge that when discussing all of the talent Illinois has at running back, we don't even have to cover Ferguson because his greatness is already well-observed.
And when Ferg graduates following this season, Illinois is extremely well-prepared for his departure, even in spite of all the injuries. More often than ever before, players like Brown get back to full strength from ACL injuries. Corbin's torn labrum should heal without issue as well, meaning the Illini will have a full stable of backs next season to compete for playing time.
Vaughn will likely start next season regardless of Brown's health, but expect those two to end up at the top of the depth chart in 2016. Enyenihi, in his senior year, and Corbin will fight for the third string spot.
The wild card in all this is current high-three star running back commit Kentrail Moran, who will arrive as an eager true freshman in 2016. Though it'd be tough to beat out Vaughn, he may be able to hang with any other back on the roster.
With all the injury madness occurring at running back, it's difficult to see the forest for the trees. Yes, V'Angelo Bentley may take some snaps in the backfield this season because the once impressive depth has been annihilated. Yes, Illinois would be in deep trouble if yet another back got hurt.
But the team has a bona fide star at the position this season and what looks like a talented young back-up to boot. With all those returning from injuries next season, 2015 should be the ice cream stand selling vanilla-chocolate swirl soft serve to 2016's newly renovated Baskin Robbins, complete with 31 flavors of jukes.
This season and beyond, Tim Beckman and Bill Cubit should have all the options they need to continue the tradition of excellent Illini running backs in the last decade.