Asmussen | Opportunity finds Corbin in the Illini backfield

Asmussen | Opportunity finds Corbin in the Illini backfield

Eight years.

That's how much time has elapsed since Illinois had a running back finish with at least 1,000 yards.

Reggie Corbin is on pace to end the streak.

The junior has 464 yards, averaging 92.8 yards per game. I'm not very good at math, but I can use a calculator. Keep up his current rate and Corbin will finish with 1,113 yards. It jumps to 1,206 if the team reaches the postseason.

Not bad for a guy who had 78 yards the entire 2017 season. Corbin almost doubled that mark on one run against Rutgers, a 73-yard sprint that helped put the game away.

Let's say Corbin reaches 1,113. That will be the 10th-best rushing season in school history, bumping Thomas Rooks down one spot.

The top 10 list is filled with former NFL players and program icons: Mikel Leshoure, Rashard Mendenhall, Antoineo Harris, Robert Holcombe (twice), Jim Grabowski, J.C. Caroline, Keith Jones and Howard Griffith.

It's a list you want to be a part of. A list that includes Super Bowl winners and 1,000-yard rushers in the NFL.

Why is Corbin in this position?

"It's being relentless," Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. "I can recall a play in the Iowa game (from last year), as a good as you'll see. Reggie Corbin can make you miss in open field.

"I think Reggie's had consistent play this year. You just have to stay the course and eventually, if you're a good football player, you'll get an opportunity to showcase your skill. That's what Reggie's done."

Look what I found

Early in spring practice, first-year offensive coordinator Rod Smith realized Corbin could be an asset.

"I had a chance to watch him run through individual drills, watch him cut and watch him run," Smith said. "I thought, 'This kid, he's pretty good.' I was kind of wondering 'Where has he been?' "

So, smart guy Smith did some research. He talked to running backs coach Thad Ward, who has been on the staff since 2016. And he talked to other members of the staff.

"They explained what some of the reasoning was," Smith said.

Smith gave Corbin a clean slate.

"Thad agreed 100 percent," Smith said. "We give all those guys a free job interview. Reggie was doing these (positive) things back in the spring. I've been happy with Reggie for a while."

Smith seemed surprised to hear it's been eight years since the Illini had a 1,000-yard rusher. He is eager to change it.

"If you've got a guys rushing for over 1,000 yards that means you're doing something pretty well," Smith said. "I'd like to have a couple of them, to be honest with you. To me that shows you're being efficient in the run game. Hopefully, we can reach that."

Smith has coached his share of 1,000-yarders. Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson did it three times from 2010-12. Tailback Fitzgerald Toussaint had a grand in '11.

Just last season, Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate ran for 1,411 yards.

Corbin might be next.

"I think he has a chance. Absolutely," Smith said. "He's got to stay healthy. There's a lot of things that go into that. It's not just him. It's how you block things up front. It's how your quarterback handles things."

Follow us

Nick Allegretti and the Illinois linemen are ready to do their part. Leading the way for a 1,000-yard rusher will be an accomplishment they can tell the kids about.

"A 1,000-yard rusher would be huge," Allegretti said. "I think we should have a 1,000-yard rusher every year. We're a Big Ten team. With the expectation of winning games and running the ball, it should happen."

Winning the battle up front means more.

"There's a lot of pride when you run for 300 yards in a game," Allegretti said.

Allegretti is a Corbin fan.

"I love playing for him," Allegretti said. "We'll block for him every day. Reggie is a guy who has worked his butt off. He's in great shape now. He's gotten faster. On the 73-yard run, you saw his speed."

Corbin's bounceback from a mostly inactive sophomore season doesn't surprise Allegretti.

"We knew how talented he was," Allegretti said. "He's one of the most shifty kids I've seen run the ball. Last year, for whatever reason, he wasn't given his opportunity. I think that may have even helped him a little more this year. He was a little more driven. When he got that chance this year, from Game 1, he's taken off. I love seeing that."

Corbin averages a robust 7.8 yards per carry. He isn't the only one running well for the Illini. Sophomore Mike Epstein is averaging 6.8 yards per pop and quarterback AJ Bush Jr. is at 5.9.

"They make our job easier," Allegretti said.

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

-