Continuing my roster review for 2018, we are taking a look at the running backs and tight ends today.
Illinois had a vastly improved running game in 2018, which was the sole reason the team saw a two-win improvement over last season. S&P+ ranked Illinois as the 10th best rushing attack, and metrics put them as one of the most explosive in the land. That is thanks to the offensive line — who I’ll talk about soon — and one other man.
Reggie Corbin Rushing 2018
Reggie Corbin Receiving 2018
Garrick McGee only gave Reggie Corbin 18 carries in 2017.
Garrick McGee should never coach college football again. He’s now an offensive analyst at Mizzou, but I’m not sure what use he could be when he had a player like Reggie Corbin right under his nose and failed to see and utilized his talents.
This is what I had to say about Reggie Corbin before the season began.
Reggie Corbin went from averaging over six yards a carry in his freshman season to a forgotten man in 2017. After missing the first three games with an injury, fans expected to see Corbin get put right back into the offense and be productive, but Gerrick McGee never really used him. Even after a good performance against Iowa with 61 yards on seven carries, Corbin went largely unused.
That should change this season. Corbin is versatile and quick, which are two huge pluses for new offensive coordinator Rod Smith. He’s been seeing quite a bit of action in fall camp and is being used often in two back formations with Epstein. I’d expect a return to form from him this year under an offensive coordinator who can use his skills more creatively.
I expected a bounceback year for Corbin, but no one expected the amazing breakout year we actually got.
Reggie Corbin became the first Illinois running back since Mikel Leshoure in 2010 to rush for more than 1,000 yards. He had four runs of 70+. He was fifth in the nation in yards per carry, and had to be the leader in making defenders look absolutely stupid.
His cutting ability is elite and he does a fantastic job of setting guys up to be posterized by his june-bug like cuts.
His TD run against Minnesota with AJ Bush leading the way was my favorite play of the year. The way he sets up this Minnesota safety and just leaves him grasping at air is amazing to just watch again and again.
His cutback run against Wisconsin is also up there in highlights. The man has moves for days.
Reggie Corbin made Illinois Football fun to watch again.
I had more fun watching Corbin than I had watching an Illinois player since Mike Dudek in 2014 and Leshoure before him. He was simply sensational, and he was the main man the Illinois vastly improved rushing game (ranked 13th in the NCAA and 2nd in the Big Ten) was built around.
An ankle injury slowed him down in the Nebraska game and his impact was limited for the last three Illinois games or else he would have had even more yards and several more juke victims.
There has been some talk of him moving to the NFL. If he did decide to leave, he would for sure be drafted, but how high is the question. He has an elite skill with his quickness and agility to make people miss. He has good speed, but not the speed that makes you go “wow”, and there would be concerns from NFL scouts about his lack of ability showcased to catch the ball so far in college.
He would probably be a mid-round pick, which for most players would mean a return to college, but for running backs? Maybe not. All running backs are stamped with an expiration date and going pro one year early means one more year of an actual salary before any one possible moment can end a career. He also could believe that his stock won’t rise much by coming back or that he could go to the combine and impressed the scouts with some great workout numbers.
Either way, he will have a decision to make. I’d probably lean toward him coming back, but man, if I were a running back.....I don’t think I could turn down any chance of going pro.
The NFL is in his future, but Illinois fans will hope he does choose to return in 2019, and if he does, I’m expecting more exciting and many, many more Big Ten defenders looking absolutely silly.
He was featured in BTN’s the Journey.
Jakari Norwood Rushing 2018
Jakari Norwood Receiving 2018
Norwood has a lot of speed and could be a key player for Illinois in the future. He preserved his redshirt after only appearing in 3 games where he didn’t see much playing time. He may fight his way into the rotation in his redshirt sophomore season.
Ra’Von Bonner Rushing 2018
Ra’Von Bonner Receiving 2018
Ra’von Bonner saw a reduced role in his sophomore season, only getting 10 or more carries in a game twice this season — including 21 against Iowa in mostly garbage time because almost all of that game was garbage time. But, he still was a part of the rotation with 72 carries and 3 TDs.
He is a classic power runner and he looks to hit the hole with force, but sometimes can be so focused on running hard that he fails to see better running lanes. With increased vision he could be a more effective back.
Kenyon Sims Rushing 2018
The freshman out of San Diego preserved his redshirt and only saw two carries this season. I liked his highlights a lot and he has good speed for his size.
The walk-on didn’t see the field in 2018.
Dre Brown Rushing 2018
Dre Brown’s career has been full of ACL tears, and it’s clear he isn’t as explosive after the injuries, but he has shown flashes of what made him a top-10 recruit in the state of Illinois, like this 72-yard touchdown against Nebraska.
He finished his fourth season as a redshirt junior and could come back next year, but if he decides to move on after graduating in the spring I wouldn’t be surprised.
Mike Epstein Rushing 2018
Mike Epstein Receiving 2018
Epstein is a very strong and tough runner. He has a no-nonsense style and I love it. Epstein was the main running back in his five games he played in before a foot fracture in his freshman season, but took a RB2 role this year behind Reggie Corbin.
He is a good receiving option out of the backfield and I would like to see him used more in that way. I also would hope that he would see some more carries moving forward, but he has to stay healthy to do that. Injuries will be a concern as he was limited to only seven games this season after he only played in five as a freshman.
If he can stay healthy, he should play an even bigger role in the offense moving forward.
Rod Smith doesn’t use tight ends very often as anything other than extra blockers in his offense. They are more full back or H-Back than tight ends. His goal is to get the ball in players hands quickly who are quick with it, and neither of those things go well with large men like TEs. However, as blockers, they are key to making this offense work well. It’s an important position, just not glamorous.
Austin Roberts Receiving 2018
Austin Roberts was the main man Rod Smith would turn to when the Illinois’ offense needed extra protection and a blocker. He did a lot of dirty work as a H-Back and a special teams player in his four years at Illinois and was one of the few who made it through all four years playing at Illinois.
His next step after Illinois is med-school
Congrats to @LBeast36 on being named Academic All-District.— Illini Football (@IlliniFootball) November 15, 2018
Roberts is pursuing a joint bachelor's/master's degrees in applied health sciences and aspires to become a doctor. More ⬇️https://t.co/SBQ7tdVKro
Rod Smith doesn’t really use a TE like Griffin Palmer, who is mostly a receiving threat. He appeared in 11 games in his redshirt sophomore season and didn’t record a stat.
The junior made one tackle and returned one kick for 8 yards while being used mostly as a special teams player.
Daniel Barker Receiving 2018
Barker was the TE that was turned to when Rod Smith needed a receiving option but it was rare, and when he was used it was mostly with dump-offs, but he did have a 30-yard touchdown against Minnesota on a very nicely timed, delayed check-down route.
The Price is Right on this Daniel Barker touchdown. @IlliniFootball is in a groove offensively as they lead 38-17. pic.twitter.com/vuMO9zofqt— Illinois on BTN (@IllinoisOnBTN) November 3, 2018
Jones didn’t see the field in his redshirt sophomore season and you have to wonder if he ever will at this point after moving to TE from defensive end.
Walk-on didn’t see the field this season.
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