Illini's Epstein is at full speed ahead

Illini's Epstein is at full speed ahead

CHAMPAIGN — Rod Smith got in some good-natured ribbing on Mike Epstein after Illinois' 34-14 win against Western Illinois. Those 38-yard carries Epstein broke against the Leathernecks last Saturday night? Good, but they could have been better.

"I'd like to see him break the whole thing," Smith said. "I told him, 'Instead of going three-fourths of the way, let's go all the way.' I was just messing with him. It was good to see him break off a couple."

Epstein showed flashes of the same running back against Western Illinois as the one that led Illinois in rushing yards and yards per carry in 2017 despite playing in just five games. His two big gains came on different plays — one a counter and the other an outside zone — but the result was the same. Epstein made one move, got oriented downfield and put on a burst of speed.

"You don't have to make a bunch of people miss," Smith said. "You just need to make one person miss — get north and south and be decisive in your cuts. Whenever guys can do that, it obviously helps."

Epstein was quick to credit Illinois' offensive line and his receivers blocking downfield. Redshirt senior Nick Allegretti, pulling from right guard, and freshman tight end Daniel Barker opened up the hole on the first 38-yard carry. Allegretti, Barker and sophomore tackle Alex Palczewski took care of it on the second.

But Epstein took advantage. After missing the final seven games of the 2017 season with a foot injury, the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., native maybe has a better burst. He posted his second career 100-yard rushing game against Western Illinois and ranks third on the team with 16 carries for 138 yards heading into Saturday's 2:30 p.m. kickoff against South Florida at Soldier Field in Chicago.

"I've been feeling like myself really from the jump," Epstein said. "To go out there and show it and make the most of it was a good feeling. I had a lot of time to work on my speed and my burst. I can't really put a measurement on it from last year, but I'm happy with where I'm at."

Illinois has used three running backs so far this season and might have used four if Dre Brown hadn't been unavailable with a foot injury the first two weeks of the season. Illini coach Love Smith said that Epstein, Reggie Corbin and Ra'Von Bonner — the nominal starter against Kent State and Western Illinois — will all continue to split carries. And that doesn't include Illinois' quarterbacks regularly contributing in the run game.

"Who we are is we play multiple running backs," Lovie Smith said. "We think they all bring something different to the table. It's based on what type of game we feel like we need to have on whether we lean on one a little bit more than the other. ... That could change by quarter, by game, by week. As a general rule, we go in thinking we're going to play all three of our guys."

Corbin and graduate transfer quarterback AJ Bush Jr. lead Illinois with 142 rushing yards each. Epstein — buoyed by his eight carries for 105 yards in Week 2 — paces the Illini at 8.6 yards per carry. Those are numbers, however, Epstein doesn't seem overly concerned about.

"The numbers are good to hear, but it really doesn't matter," he said. "Every rep I get — no matter what my yards are at and whatever the situation is — I just try to help my team win. Whenever my number is called, I just try to make the most plays I can and help this team win. That's all I'm here to do."

Epstein sees Illinois using three running backs as an advantage. That, combined with the ideal tempo the Illini want their offense to operate at, doubles down on that advantage.

"It keeps us all fresh," Epstein said. "Defenses are going to be really tired when they come against us. If we have a 12-play drive, the defense will be tired. We might have three backs in on that 12-play drive, so we'll be fresh. It's tough to tackle a fresh back."

Exploiting that advantage in the run game is Illinois' intention against South Florida. The Illini lost by 24 points to the Bulls last year in Tampa. Although Epstein had a solid game with both a rushing and receiving touchdown, the defeat doesn't bring back a lot of fond memories.

"It was kind of embarrassing last year," he said. "I think that will stick out to us as we prepare for them this week. You don't always get a second opportunity, so we want to take advantage of this."