Illinois has an embarrassment of riches at the running back position. Chase Brown will enter the 2022 season as the starter, while being backed up by Josh McCray, a back who would likely start on many Power 5 teams. Chase Hayden entered the spring as third in the rotation, but he may find it hard to hold off freshmen Jordan Anderson and Aiden Laughery.
STARTER: CHASE BROWN
Chase Brown looks primed and ready to go. He may not have elite speed, but he exhibits great balance, vision, patience and explosiveness when hitting the hole. Brown would be a large part of any offense Illinois ran and it is expected offensive coordinator Barry Lunney will get the ball in Brown’s hands as much as possible. Brown was named to the All-Big Ten Third Team in 2021, and it’s safe to say he’s in a position to land on the All-Big Ten team for a second consecutive year.
Running backs are expected to make a defender miss in tight spaces, as the offense will rarely be able to block all defenders. Brown brings that capability every play. Collecting yards after contact is an area in which both Brown and McCray excel.
Career Stats: (Illinois and Western Michigan)
- Rushing: 348 attempts, 1,915 yards, 5.5 avg, 8 TDs
- Receiving: 31 receptions, 281 yards, 9.1 avg, 0 TDs
This is Chase Brown at his best. ILB Kenny Odeluga does a nice job of cutting underneath the block by the tight end and meets Brown at the line of scrimmage, but Brown subtly side stepped out of the tackle. OLB Malachi Hood showed some read and react ability by sliding over and adjusting himself into a position to make the tackle, but Brown spun out of it. Brown then ran through the attempted tackle by S Prince Green before being brought down by several defenders. (Below)
Brown patiently waits for his blocks to set up before exploding through the hole. ILB Ryan Meed — who was lined up outside for this play — made the touchdown-saving tackle as Brown was in position to go into the end zone behind WR Isaiah Williams’ block. (Below)
Chase Brown squeezed down along his blockers as former OLB Joriell Washington crashed too hard inside and took a bad angle. Brown displayed some nifty footwork as if he was doing a running back drill to get into the end zone. (Below)
BACK-UP: JOSH MCCRAY
Josh McCray would be listed as a co-starter if Illinois ran two-back sets. He’s a hand-picked Bielema recruit from the 2021 recruiting class. McCray made his presence felt as a freshman by bursting onto the scene against No. 7 Penn State, collecting 142 yards rushing. He’s a big, bruising back who gets north-south quickly and is a load to tackle.
McCray has unusually nimble feet for a running back his size and is able to bounce runs when needed. Rarely does McCray get brought down by initial contact and he almost always falls forward for extra yardage upon being tackled. If the spring game is any indication, McCray has developed into a willing blocker both behind the line of scrimmage and on the perimeter.
As games wear on, we will likely see McCray pick up larger chunks of yardage. His bruising running style will make it difficult for defenses to stay fresh and continue exhibiting solid tackling form due to the physicality of McCray’s running style.
Career Stats: (Illinois)
- Rushing: 112 attempts, 549 yards, 4.9 avg, 2 TDs
- Receiving: 2 receptions, 43 yards, 21.5 avg, 0 TDs
Josh McCray flashes his agility and power on this play. When he sees there is nothing inside due to redshirt freshman OLB Alec Bryant crashing inside and clogging the running lane, McCray bounces it outside. He ran right through ILB Isaac Darkangelo’s attempted tackle before being brought down by a host of defenders. Also of note is sophomore WR Pat Bryant’s block on redshirt-freshman CB DD Snyder. (Below)
There isn’t much running room here, but McCray does an excellent job of using his blocks, shifting in stride, and squeezing through a small area. McCray jab steps right, then comes back left and fires out. The jab step created some hesitation by the linebackers and caused them to get caught up in the wash of the offensive line’s blocks. (Below)
RESERVE: CHASE HAYDEN
Chase Hayden seems to be quicker than last year judging by the spring game, but he may struggle to hold onto his spot on the depth chart. Hayden didn’t see much playing time in 2021 and he’ll likely receive few carries in 2021. It’s not that Hayden is devoid of talent, but he’s caught in a deep running back rotation.
Hayden played for Bielema at Arkansas and subsequently transferred to East Carolina, before landing at Illinois. He will be a sixth-year senior.
Career Stats: (Illinois, ECU, Arkansas)
- Rushing: 151 attempts, 696 yards, 4.6 avg, 5 TDs
- Receiving: 17 receptions, 127 yards, 7.5 avg, 0 TDs
RESERVE: JORDAN ANDERSON
Freshman Jordan Anderson used the spring in a way most freshmen envision when they arrive early on campus. He followed up his practice reps with a significant showing in the spring game. When Anderson was given the opportunity, he didn’t disappoint. It may only be a spring game, but when the lights come on, the better players tend to separate themselves in competitive moments.
Not only did Anderson demonstrate vision, balance, and cutback ability, he also flashed an unusually strong aptitude when catching the ball. Anderson will need to develop some consistency in breaking tackles on initial contact, but he brings a high amount of potential to the running back room. If he continues to develop at this pace, it will be hard for the staff to keep Anderson off the field in 2022.
Jordan Anderson exhibits excellent vision and the ability to plant, cut, and turn what would have been a run for no gain into an explosive play. ILB Tarique Barnes over plays the run and gets caught in the same gap as ILB Calvin Hart. Tight end Mike Cerniglia sets a solid block on ILB Barnes which also wipes out ILB Hart. OLB Seth Coleman does not squeeze enough taking on the block by the pulling tight end. Anderson saw S Sydney Brown filling the gap where the play was originally designed to go and cut back upfield, in essence turning this play into a counter. (Below)
We highlighted Anderson’s catching ability in our assessment of the quarterbacks, but here it is again. (Below)
RESERVE: AIDEN LAUGHERY
Freshman Aiden Laughery created plenty of buzz during the spring. Unfortunately, he developed a minor injury towards the end of spring practice and could not participate in the spring game.
Laughery has been described as a dynamic player with speed possessed by few others on the roster. Running backs coach Cory Patterson said Laughery could be slotted anywhere on offense and be effective. It’s likely Laughery will immediately step into a kick returner role in 2022 and there is certainly the potential of Laughery being used in situational setups on offense.
RESERVE: REGGIE LOVE
Reggie Love was a highly rated prospect in 2020. He’s battled injuries during his time at Illinois and also has had the misfortune of Chase Brown and Josh McCray developing into premier backs, limiting his opportunities. Love was again hampered by injuries during the spring and was unable to showcase his talent.
If Love can stay healthy and live up to his potential, he’ll provide Illinois with yet another weapon in the backfield. He’ll enter 2022 as a redshirt-sophomore, so there is still time to contribute, but he is competing against a very talented group of running backs in an effort to see playing time.
Career Stats: (Illinois)
- Rushing: 54 attempts, 170 yards, 3.2 avg, 0 TDs
- Receiving: 2 receptions, 12 yards, 6.0 avg, 0 TDs
RESERVE: NICK FEDANZO
Nick Fedanzo is a redshirt sophomore who was a lightly recruited in-state running back in 2019. He primarily played on special teams in 2021 and is unlikely to see the field as a running back in 2022 due to the depth ahead of him.
Career Stats: (Illinois)
In our next position preview, we will dive into the tight end position and what to expect from that group in 2022.