The Illini head into the 2020 season with a running back group that lost its top three players from 2019— Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown due to graduation, as well as Ra’Von Bonner who opted out of the season.
With these losses, the Illini lost 67% of their rushing yards from 2019 as well as 78% of their rushing touchdowns. Do not fret, however, because the Illini do return a veteran in Mike Epstein and get a full season out of Western Michigan transfer Chase Brown, who was ineligible for half of the 2019 campaign. They also have an exciting true freshman in the fold in Reggie Love.
Mike Epstein- RS Junior- 6’0” 205 LBS
Epstein has shown flashes of brilliance in his career. Who can forget the touchdown run against Iowa his freshman year!!!
Unfortunately, however, his flashes of brilliance have been met with season ending injuries. As a freshman, Epstein gained 346 yards on 57 carries, before suffering a season-ending injury. As a sophomore, Epstein gained 411 yard on 68 carries before suffering a season-ending injury halfway through the season. Then, as a junior, he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the season opener against Akron.
Nonetheless, with a yard per carry average of 6.1 and 6.8 respectively during his freshman and sophomore year, the potential is there for Epstein to be a dynamic pawn in Rod Smith’s offense.
Chase Brown- RS Sophomore- 5’10’’ 195 LBS
With Bonner out, Chase Brown is expected to land in the Illini’s two-deep. Brown transferred from Western Michigan where, during his freshman year, he had 352 yards on 71 carriers and 10 receptions for 75 yards. He then transferred to Illinois in 2019, redshirted, but did see action in four games as he rushed for 18 yards on 3 carries.
Expect Brown to be a change of pace to Epstein. You will see him more in the role that Reggie Corbin played last year where his shiftiness can make him an asset in the perimeter whether in the passing game or the run game.
Reggie Love- Freshman- 5’11’ 200 LBS
Reggie Love is a true freshman from Trinity Catholic in St. Louis. He is a continuation of the pipeline to Trinity established by the hire of Corey Patterson. As the 31st-ranked running back in the class of 2020, Love was a sought after recruit who drew offers from several schools including Kentucky, Louisville, Minnesota, and Nebraska— exactly the type of schools the Illini have to beat on the trail.
But Love is not just recruiting proof-of-concept for the Corey Patterson. He is a running back who will provide depth and likely see playing time this season.
Overall, the running group back only has to be efficient. With the other pieces the Illini have on offense— including Brandon Peters, Josh Imatorbhebhe and Luke Ford— the running backs just have to do their part to make sure defenses respect the middle and perimeter. The more defenders the running backs occupy, the more downfield opportunities for the Illini’s big playmakers in the passing game.