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Mike Epstein continues hot start in his freshman season

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The freshman is already proving to be a cornerstone of the Illini offense

NCAA Football: Western Kentucky at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois’ freshman class has already seen 17 players see the field in the first two games, and possibly no player has made the impact equal to running back Mike Epstein.

The 6-foot, 195-pound back from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, picked up 111 yards Saturday on 21 carries and is our Illini performer of the game to help Illinois (2-0) down Western Kentucky, 20-7. It’s hard to imagine his career getting off to much of a better start as Epstein found the end zone twice in the team’s season opener against Ball State.

But there was concern just six months ago that Epstein, who committed to Illinois in 2015 under former coach Tim Beckman, would decommit after bigger programs such as Michigan, Miami and UCLA started showing increased interest in three-star recruit.

If you only looked at rankings, Epstein could have been overlooked. He was the 59th-rated running back by 247 coming out of high school, 89th on ESPN.

Despite the allure of more established programs, Epstein stayed true to his commitment and has been rewarded with immediate playing time in a backfield that returned entrenched incumbents Kendrick Foster and Reggie Corbin.

Epstein had 11 carries for 54 yards against Ball State, three more than Foster and the same amount of carries as quarterback Chayce Crouch. His workload increased even further against the Hilltoppers, toting the ball 21 times, nine more than Crouch and fellow freshman Ra’Von Bonner, leaving just three carries for Foster.

What’s been most impressive about Epstein thus far this year is how steady and consistent he’s been — other than his first-career carry, which lost a whopping eight yards. For the season, Epstein is averaging 5.2 yards per carry, and his longest rush of the year is just 14 yards. Against Ball State, he also showed some flash in the receiving game by picking up a pair of catches for 32 yards.

The freshman makes decisive cuts and is able to make defenders miss without having to slow down, which should lead to big plays in the future.

For a team that is committed to running the ball, having multiple effective options in the backfield is a good problem to have. As the grind of the season wears on, it will be difficult for Epstein to continue to have the same impact he has had in the opening two weeks, which should re-open the door for Foster to get more carries. Bonner is unique as the Illini’s lone ‘power’ back, so he will be tasked with short-yardage situations.

Turning around a football program takes years of recruiting and development, and Illinois is still in the fledgling stages of its rebuild. Its roster has 54 players who are freshmen or redshirt freshmen.

In just two games, Epstein has shown why his future might be the brightest of them all.