Running back has been an unpredictable posistion for Illinois over the last two years.
In 2016, it looked like Ke’Shawn Vaughn would be the featured back after a very good freshman season where he rushed for 723 yards and six touchdowns. Vaughn only had 60 carries on the season after being passed on the depth chart by Kendrick Foster and Reggie Corbin. He then decided to transfer to Vanderbilt.
In 2017, it appeared Foster and Corbin would run the show. However, Corbin barely saw the field, and Foster’s yards per carry dropped from 5.7 to 3.6 and he was passed on the depth chart by Mike Epstein and Ra’Von Bonner.
Barring injury, maybe this is the year Illinois finds some stability. Epstein should be the featured back with some experienced backups behind him in Corbin and Bonner.
But given Illinois’ recent history at the position, I’m expecting Jakari Norwood to lead the team in rushing (kidding).
Reggie Corbin - #2, JR, 5’ 10”, 200 lbs
Reggie Corbin Rushing
Reggie Corbin Receiving
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.
Jakari Norwood- #3, FR, 5’ 10”, 185 lbs
Jakari Norwood was one of the early commits in the class of 2018 for Illinois out of Deerfield Beach, Florida. He also enrolled early at Illinois and has been with the program since January.
Norwood is a smaller back, but with that has plus speed and elusiveness. If he can further develop his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and even in the slot, he could be a very useful player for the future.
I don’t think we’ll see much of Norwood on the field this season, and he will probably take a redshirt unless there are injuries in front of him — but remember he can now play in up to four games and still take a redshirt.
He could also be a good candidate as a return man for Illinois in the coming years.
Ra’Von Bonner - #21, SO, 5’ 11”, 210 lbs
Ra’Von Bonner Rushing
Ra’Von Bonner Receiving
I know that Bonner only gaining three yards per carry doesn’t look good, but I do like his game. He is a old-school power back, and he fights hard for every yard. Last season was a struggle for him, and like many freshman he didn’t see the holes in front of him develop quickly enough. However, he wasn’t done any favors playing behind a young offensive line and with QBs who weren’t huge threats in the passing game. He was running into a stacked box on almost every play.
Bonner’s vision should improve with experience. His power running will be very useful to Illinois in certain situations this year and as a change of pace for opposing defenses. Rod Smith will cycle through a lot of players on offense and Bonner should still see some carries in 2018, but he’ll have to earn them.
Kenyon Sims - #22, FR, 5’ 11”, 200 lbs
The San Diego native choose Illinois over offers from Arizona, Utah, Utah State, and Washington State among others. Rod Smith recruited Sims while he was with the Wildcat staff and continued to recruit Sims when he made the switch to Illinois.
He has the looks of a complete back with good speed and size. He should see some action this year, and his tough one-cut running style should remind fans of current Illinois RB Mike Epstein.
Dre Brown - #25, JR, 5’ 11”, 215 lbs
Dre Brown Rushing
Dre Brown Receiving
Seeing Dre Brown finally play was a fantastic sight. Brown missed his first two seasons of college football with ACL tears in both knees. Brown also showed flashes of what made him a former top ten recruit in the state of Illinois with a 15-carry, 76-yard performance against the Buckeyes and a 51-yard day on 12 carries in a start against Northwestern in the season finale.
Brown completed his undergraduate degree at Illinois, but he still may have something to offer to the team on the field. He and Ra’Von Bonner will compete for playing time behind Corbin and Epstein.
Mike Epstein - #26, SO, 6’ 0”, 200 lbs
Mike Epstein Rushing
Mike Epstein Receiving
Epstein played well in the first five games of the season before breaking his foot and missing the rest of the season. He has good burst off the line and is a very tough runner. He can also catch the ball well out of the backfield, which will be a key factor in the new offense.
I expect Epstein to also line up in the slot a few plays a game for jet sweeps, screen passes, and even some short passing routes. Rod Smith will find ways to get the ball in his players hands.
It will be in the backfield where Epstein will be valuable. His speed and tough running will work well in an up-tempo system. If Epstein is healthy, I’d expect nothing less than a solid year as the main running back for Illinois....
....that is unless the starting RB posistion for the Illini has become cursed like the defense against the dark arts post at Hogwarts.
Projected Depth Chart
- Mike Epstein
- Reggie Corbin
- Ra’Von Vonner OR Dre Brown
- Kenyon Sims
- Jakari Norwood