All eyes will be on Reggie Corbin this fall. The redshirt-senior is back for his final hoorah after an impressive junior campaign under first year offensive coordinator Rod Smith. Corbin was the 13th Illini to rush for 1,000 yards in a single season, led the nation in runs of 60+ yards and 70+ yards, and has already been named to various preseason award watch lists.
But let’s not forget about Mike Epstein. As a freshman, the Fort Lauderdale, Florida native burst onto the scene with 111 yards against Western Kentucky in Week 2. He’d rack up another 181 yards on 25 carries over the next three weeks before his season was cut short due to injury. Through only five games, Epstein still finished with the most rushing yards on the team, yards per carry, and tied for the team lead in touchdowns.
Here are some of his highlights from his freshman season:
Year 1. The beginning pic.twitter.com/tkJZ4H41Zh— Mike Epstein (@Dat26Kid) December 13, 2017
Despite another shortened season due to injury, Epstein still showed he has what it takes to be a productive Big Ten running back. Epstein managed to boost his rushing yards per attempt from 6.1 to 6.9 while also finding the end zone three times.
In back-to-back weeks against Western Illinois and South Florida last season, Epstein combined to rush for 218 yards on 27 carries, a touchdown, and five receptions for 56 yards against South Florida.
Here are some clips from that South Florida game:
Just a kid from South Florida doing work against South Florida. #ILLINIpic.twitter.com/ooneHm0NPj— Illinois Football (@IlliniFootball) September 15, 2018
Mike Epstein pic.twitter.com/0ygTcpaOcM— IllinoisLoyalty (@IllinoisLoyalty) September 9, 2018
Mike Epstein pic.twitter.com/JSajrER9Hp— IllinoisLoyalty (@IllinoisLoyalty) September 9, 2018
We’ve seen how much damage the duo of Corbin and Epstein can do together. They run with very similar styles, both have a unique ability to make defenders miss in the open field, and the explosiveness to get into the second level quickly. If Epstein can stay healthy, there’s arguably no better tandem in the conference.
Sprinkle in some improvement at wide out. Return almost the entire starting line. And with a little luck, some combination of Brandon Peters and Isaiah Williams can command the offense. After just one year of the Rod Smith tenure, rushing yards per game jumped from 105 to almost 245, one of the biggest jumps in the country. The offense scored 10.6 more points per game in 2018 than 2017.
With a healthy Epstein, the Illini offense is poised to take another big step in 2019.