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2021 Illinois Football: Running Back Preview

Can Bielema repeat his successful rushing attack at Illinois?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 14 Illinois at Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There weren’t a lot of bright spots for Illinois Football during the Lovie era. One of the places he did succeed was in the running back position. Running behind a mature offensive line peppered with future NFL players (Nick Allegretti - Kansas City, Kendrick Green - Pittsburgh), the rushing offense slowly turned itself into one of the better attacks in the nation. Just look at the stats below, where Illinois erupts from the bottom of the nation (124/130 in 2017) to a top-20 rushing attack and 2nd best in the B1G in 2018.

Rushing Stats - Illinois

 Total Yards Nat. Rank B1G Rank TDs Nat. Rank B1G Rank Att/G Nat. Rank B1G Rank
 Total Yards Nat. Rank B1G Rank TDs Nat. Rank B1G Rank Att/G Nat. Rank B1G Rank
2016 1686 109 13 14 108 11 29.79 125 14
2017 1267 124 14 11 116 13 32.17 114 13
2018 2916 18 2 25 48 5 41.08 37 3
2019 1874 77 9 19 72 9 37.77 61 9
2020 1569 52 3 9 94 11 40.88 37 7

Yes, the rush regressed in the following two seasons, but losing talent to the NFL, changing running back, injuries, and a pandemic will do that to a team that was led by a coach that was unwilling to change.

Nonetheless, Bielema inherits one of, if not, the most experienced offensive lines in the nation and a running back crew that is ready to carry the offense in 2021. But before we get into the core group, as I mentioned last week, Bielema wants to put the running backs as the star of his offense and damn has he been successful.

I’ll let the stats below speak before continuing.


Bielema at Wisconsin

Rushing Stats - Bielema

Year Total Yards Nat. Rank B1G Rank TDs Nat. Rank B1G Rank Att/G Nat. Rank B1G Rank
Year Total Yards Nat. Rank B1G Rank TDs Nat. Rank B1G Rank Att/G Nat. Rank B1G Rank
2006 2103 35 6 24 22 5 41.2 10 2
2007 2611 19 2 29 24 2 45.2 12 2
2008 2746 15 1 20 16 2 43.6 14 1
2009 2650 15 1 33 7 1 44.69 8 1
2010 3194 12 3 48 2 1 44.92 12 3
2011 3298 8 1 48 1 1 43.5 18 3
2012 3309 11 1 38 11 1 45.36 17 4
2020 (Tony Pederson @ App State) 3179 3 N/A 28 13 N/A 45.42 12 N/A

Bielema and his OC, the current Wisconsin HC, Paul Chryst, took the powerhouse that Barry Alvarez had built in the 90s and early 2000’s and literally ran with it. Bielema and Chryst took a program that was a middle-of-the-pack rushing offense to one that consistently ranked in the top-15 and led the B1G in the nation in yards, TDs, and attempts/game.

Along the way, he had help from NFL Players like OT Joe Thomas, OT Gabe Carimi, QB Russell Wilson, OG Kevin Zeitler, RB Montee Ball, RB Melvin Gordon, and RB James White. Now I am not saying that Illinois has the talent today, but Bret Bielema never had a stellar class. He took 3-star players, often from Wisconsin, and made them into the stars they are today. Something he looks to replicate at Illinois.

The RB room may not be in its final form, but the success from the Lovie era should transition smoothly into the Bielema era.

TL;DR: Illinois is primed to continue its success in running the ball in 2021. Bielema’s historical success coaching the RB position is a lot to look forward to.

Let's look at the room.


Probable Starters

Illinois doesn’t have a standout back, and it should be a running back by committee until someone breaks through. Bielema still hasn’t given any clues as to who the starting back will be and camp has been pretty quiet about the topic. All we know is that the offense will be run-heavy and that all backs are getting reps with the 1st team.

Chase Brown

Brown averaged 67.50 yards a game last year and had 3 touchdowns. Brown looks to carry most of the load as the most senior back on the team.

Reggie Love III

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 05 Iowa at Illinois Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Love’s freshman campaign came during the pandemic and while he played in 7 games, he was used sparingly and only had 10 carries for 12 yards in 2020. Luckily, he still has his full eligibility. If there ever is a time to have a breakthrough season, the time is now.

Chase Hayden

Hayden was a Bielema recruit at Arkansas. He had a successful freshman year campaign, touching the ball 61 times for 326 yards and 4 TDs. But regime changes got the best of him and he slowly fell off the depth chart at Arkansas after Bielema was fired. He gets a second chance with his old coach to make an impact once more.

Backups

Mike Epstein

Epstein was supposed to be the Illinois feature back for the last couple of years, but a couple of knee and ankle injuries later, he is back for one more round. Bielema convinced him to come back for a reason, whether that be to provide senior leadership or be a crucial part of the offense still is to be seen.

Jakari Norwood

Norwood has been used lightly in his three years in Champaign. He has 22 attempts for 124 yards. With the talent above him, don’t expect a lot to change for Norwood this year.

Bottom Line

Illinois has the experience on the offensive line and brings back running backs that can make an impact. Illinois has been trending as a middle-of-the-pack team for the last 3 years. Expect better results this year from a rushing attack that will look to speed it up and be more aggressive.