After Josh Ferguson graduated, this was obviously Keshawn Vaughn’s backfield to rule for the next three years. Then after Vaughn fizzled out, and Kendrick Foster stepped into the prime role, he was going to run for 1,000 yards while the young backs got acclimated to college football. Now, Mike Epstein is obviously the lead dog.
Yeah, today I would say that Mike Epstein is going to be the star tailback for the next three years, but as I’ve sarcastically scripted, predicting tailback roles can be a humbling experience.
What Illinois has in the garage is a versatile group of backs and a shiny new offense that should leverage an improving offensive line to open up larger and more sustainable holes. Rod Smith should be better adept at finding mismatches, and using pace to move the ball on the ground, better than the former broken clock calling plays for the Illini offense.
To start, Smith will have Epstein (back from a foot injury) in the backfield, as he’s all-around good at everything you want from a back. He has excellent vision and shift to find a hole, and as he showed in his freshman campaign, he also has the ability to finish long runs. Where Epstein can also find mismatches is in the passing game, maybe even opening up the possibility of having multiple backs on the field at once, sharing a backfield with running mate Reggie Corbin.
Corbin is a kid who is highly productive anytime he’s on the field, but for some reason hasn’t received the carries that someone averaging 5.8 YPC usually does. While Corbin doesn’t have great top speed, he’s incredibly quick and sets up blockers as well as any Illini back since Mikel Leshoure.
As we continue through returning back land — and remember that depth is always a concern at a position that takes so much punishment — we have two more powerful backs in Dre Brown and Ra’Von Bonner. Now I don’t know either personally, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that both guys are terrific people and teammates. Brown has recovered from multiple knee injuries and was able to carry the load in a depleted backfield late last year. Bonner was a freshman who probably could have used a redshirt year, but he was a sledgehammer behind a bad line and never complained about having to create his own luck. With both back, the Illini have a nice combination of guys capable of wearing down a defense in late-game situations.
Lovie’s second recruiting class added two tailbacks to the fold, one with lightning Florida speed and the other similar to Mike Epstein but hand-chosen by Rod Smith in San Diego.
Jakari Norwood was a sleeper take from Florida who didn’t get the lion’s share of carries on his high school team, but he has that panhandle burst that Illinois hasn’t seen out of the tailback position in some time. He’s got a ways to go, but if he finds a seam, it’s a house call.
Kenyon Sims was a name that popped up late on Illini radars, after Rod Smith was hired to guide the offense, but on tape he’s reminiscent of Epstein because he does everything well. Sims totaled 1,396 yards and 24 touchdowns in his senior year, and might be the young back that finds his way to the field in 2018.
As far as the SHOP part of this article, things look bleak for the class of 2019. Kyren Williams and Jirehl Brock were the prizes of the class, both rated 4-stars, and both with a chance to become that bellcow back to ride into better times.
But, unfortunately neither back had Cory Patterson for a high school coach, and therefore are impossible aims until Illinois gets some buzz. As for the rest? Eh, I don’t see anyone on the radar right now who would move the needle or find their way into a rotation for the next few years. I’m sure a Sims will pop up later in the cycle and jump on board, but that name is a mystery right now.
In summation, I really like what Illinois has already on campus; they should be successful within Rod Smith’s system. But, the Littyville buzz didn’t extend to running back, and it’s bleak out there folks.