Illini running backs have been sharing the load

Illini running backs have been sharing the load

CHAMPAIGN — Any preseason expectations about Illinois' running game can be readily discarded at this point of the season.

Last year's leading rusher, Kendrick Foster, has just 12 carries for 21 yards and has gone without a carry twice in the last three games. Three different players — Mike Epstein, Chayce Crouch and Ra'Von Bonner — have led the Illini in carries through five games.

Illinois' run game could look different again Saturday against Rutgers.

Epstein, who leads the Illini with 57 carries for 346 yards and three touchdowns, suffered an undisclosed leg injury Saturday at Iowa. The true freshman running back won't practice at least today — a fate shared by freshman cornerback Tony Adams (shoulder) — and the Florida native's status remains unclear moving forward.

What won't change is Illinois' reliance on multiple running backs in its offense.

"You need more than one back," Illini coach Lovie Smith said. "You need more than two. In an ideal world, most of the time we're going to play about three.

"You have an idea of how you're going to start the game. From there, you want to feel comfortable with everybody you dress, and if you need to go to them you will. We have a starting rotation. The game will kind of dictate who gets more or less based on production."

Epstein, Corbin and Bonner shared the productivity in Saturday's loss at Iowa. Epstein was the leading rusher (83 yards) and had the longest run (58 yards), Corbin got the same number of carries (seven) and Bonner led in carries (12) and scored the Illini's lone rushing touchdown.

"We just feed off of each other," Bonner said. "It's like, 'OK, Mike made a play, I want to make a play. Now, Reggie wants to make a play.' "

Illinois can also exploit different skill sets with its top three backs. Corbin is the slasher, Bonner the powerhouse and Epstein a combination of the two.

"We tried to use their skill set based on personnel groupings and where the defense was going to be," Illinois offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said about the rushing game plan against Iowa. "I think that's how we saw Reggie crease one (a 30-yard gain in the first quarter) because they were spread across the field."

And Foster? He now falls fourth on the Illinois depth chart after being the no doubt starter heading into the season. Dre Brown's return from consecutive torn ACLs adds another healthy running back, but Smith said he'd likely just play special teams like he did in his career debut at Iowa.

"The guys that are playing right now we feel give us the best chance to win," Smith said. "Sometimes when you're down a little bit further, you have to wait for your opportunity."