Asmussen | Epstein happy, healthy, 'feeling great'

Asmussen | Epstein happy, healthy, 'feeling great'

He is happy ... and healthy.

After finishing his rookie season on the disabled list, Illinois running back Mike Epstein can't wait to get on the field.

So much has changed since Epstein ran for 83 yards in the fifth game of 2017. His injured foot has healed and he has been cleared for all football-related activity.

"I feel great," Epstein said. "I'm there."

His next game on Sept. 1 will be in a new offense. Rod Smith replaced Garrick McGee as coordinator and brings a fast-paced, run-often scheme.

"I'm so excited for this offense," Epstein said. "I think it's an offense tailored to our skill guys. He's really going to use us in the right way: create space in the open lanes and create mismatches."

Though he couldn't compete in live work during the spring, Epstein did everything allowed.

A smart guy, Epstein is picking up the new system.

"I feel like I have a great handle on this offense," Epstein said. "I took a lot of mental reps. I focused on that part during the spring instead of the physical part."

Epstein ran the same offense in high school at national power St. Thomas Aquinas.

"I love it," Epstein said. "It's going to be great for not only me, but for everybody."

Fitting in

There is more to college life than what Epstein does on the field.

Like in the classroom.

And making sure he has enough time to study.

After an exhausting day of football, it isn't always easy.

"It was a lot more challenging," the sports management major said. "Just the schedule is rigorous."

Epstein took advantage of the resources available to Illinois athletes.

"The grades were real good," Epstein said. "I've been a good student."

The time management skills he learned in football pay off in the classroom.

"You can't show up late for a game. You can't show up late for a practice. You can't show up late to class," Epstein said. "I think that helped."

All of the adjustments included a climate change.

The Floridian handled his first northern winter ("I got a pretty big coat") and is glad he came to C-U.

"Growing up watching college footbal, I always wanted to go to a college town," Epstein said. "I feel like this is what it is. I love everything about this town. I love this school."

Aim high

Epstein led the team in rushing as a freshman with 346 yards.

That number figures to go up. A lot.

Will he run for 1,000-plus yards and a bunch of TDs? Possible.

Epstein isn't the only talented runner on the team. Ra'Von Bonner returns after his injury-slowed freshman season. Both Bonner and senior Reggie Corbin played well in the spring, giving Smith and running backs coach Thad Ward plenty to think about.

The reality for the new offense is that it requires multiple runners. If one guy tries to do all the work, he will be gassed by the end of the opening quarter.

Look for Smith to keep his running backs fresh.

Epstein's skillset fits the offense well.

He's got good hands, giving him a chance to work in space against overmatched linebackers and safeties,

"I like to consider myself a pretty versatile player," Epstein said. "I can catch. I can run. I couldn't think of a better offense for me."

Chasing ghosts

In almost 30 years covering Illinois football, I have seen plenty of elite runners. Howard Griffith, Ty Douthard, Robert Holcombe, Rocky Harvey, Antoineo Harris, Pierre Thomas, Rashard Mendenhall and Mikel Leshoure. They rank among the best in school history.

"I'm blessed to be here," Epstein said. "We've had some great ones before all of us that really laid the foundation. Just to be on the same field as them is special."

But there has been a recent falloff. Illinois hasn't had a winning season since 2011. And there hasn't been a 1,000 rusher (Leshoure) since '10.

Epstein and pals can to fix it.

"This year, we're going to make huge strides," Epstein said. "The only way is up. Every year, I feel like we'll get better. That's always the goal."

 

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

-