When you think of the Illini offense, a run-first attack generally comes to mind.
Since Rod Smith took over as offensive coordinator in 2018 the Illini have ranked in the top half of the Big Ten in rushing and have averaged nearly 200 yards per game on the ground.
Most of those numbers can be attributed to the excellence of Reggie Corbin, who ran for 1,760 yards over his last two years as an Illini.
If you look back to the 2019 season for Illinois, the Illini sported a three-headed monster in the backfield. Both Corbin and Dre Brown rushed for well over 500 yards, and Ra’Von Bonner tacked on nearly 300 more as the trio’s bruising back.
Fast forward to now, coming off of the program’s first bowl appearance since 2014, the running back room looks a lot different.
Corbin and Brown have graduated and moved on from Illinois. Bonner, who was expected to take a larger role in the offense, opted out due to COVID-19 concerns.
So the players expected to take the majority of the carries in what has traditionally been a run-first offense — and hopefully the pressures off of Brandon Peters — are Mike Epstein and Chase Brown.
“With a couple people leaving and another opting out, it provides a big opportunity for not only me, but a lot of people in the room,” Epstein said. “We all have to step up.”
Epstein has had an injury-riddled tenure at Illinois. His freshman year saw him tally 346 yards on the ground before missing the last seven games due to injury. An ever stronger start in the 2018 season had Epstein with almost 500 yards before he suffered a season-ending injury and missed the final five plus games. Then last year, Epstein carried the ball eight times for 45 yards against Akron — but had his season end before it really started, as Epstein missed the rest of the year with a knee injury.
The junior feels healthy and ready to get on the field for the first time in over a year.
“The knee is feeling great,” he said. “I think this allowed me for some extra time, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”
When healthy, Epstein has absolutely shown flashes of greatness, averaging 6.4 yards per carry in his college career. But the health has certainly been the biggest obstacle for the Florida native.
“I have to move forward and play the cards that I’m dealt,” Epstein said. “I’m able to be healthy now, I’ve got some extra time under my belt to make this a special season. I’m going to do everything in my power to do that.”
Brown, on the other hand, came over to the Illini as a transfer from Western Michigan and was granted eligibility. He kept three years of eligibility after redshirting last year, appearing in just four games a year ago.
The sophomore was not extremely involved but certainly showed potential both in the backfield and in the return game. He only got three carries, but averaged six yards per carry last year, and expects to do that again with a bigger workload offensively.
“My goal, myself, is to have over six yards a carry,” Brown said. “That’s what I want to do throughout the whole season, and I think our whole room can do that.”
The other backs that could aid the cause include speedster Jakari Norwood, Kenyon Sims and freshman Reggie Love III, among others.
With a running back room that seems deep — despite the Illini losing their top three ball carriers from a year ago — Brown is confident in the ability of the RBs.
“It’s going to be difficult for teams to stop us.”