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CHAMPAIGN — The Illinois running game just got better thanks to Mike Epstein’s return to the team.

The fifth-year senior is flying back to Champaign-Urbana this weekend from south Florida and will rejoin the Illini.

“Mike made a decision to come back,” his dad Dave told me Friday.

It will be a boost for what is considered one of the best position groups on the team. Epstein will work with 2020 leading rusher Chase Brown, East Carolina transfer Chase Hayden and holdovers Jakari Norwood and Reggie Love.

Epstein is a potential difference-maker for first-year offensive coordinator Tony Petersen. When healthy, Epstein’s skills as a runner, pass catcher and blocker match up with some of the program’s recent bests.

For his carer, Epstein averages 6 yards per carry. In 2020, he went over 100 yards against Nebraska. He had a career-best 63-yard run against Minnesota.

Epstein’s ability and work ethic have never been an issue. But injuries have been.

Going back to high school, he has a suffered a string of leg ailments that cost him chunks of time on the field.

He played in seven of eight games in 2020. After the finale at Penn State, he returned home to Florida.

“He had a late end to the season last year,” Dave Epstein said. “Obviously, Mike’s been through a lot with injuries.”

Returning home to train in warm weather made perfect sense for Epstein.

“The body and the blood and everything flows better in 80 degrees than in 8 degrees,” Dave Epstein said.

Staying connected

Epstein has been in contact with new Illinois coach Bret Bielema. Earlier in the week, they agreed Epstein would return.

“(Bielema) opened the door for him to come back,” Dave Epstein said.

Mike Epstein has also been talking to position coach Cory Patterson and with the Illinois medical team.

“Everybody had their input,” Dave said.

Mike only met with Bielema briefly after the coach was first hired last December. He has yet to visit in person with strength coach Tank Wright. That will soon change.

Mike was always leaning toward returning, according to his dad.

“At the end of the day, his body was going to have to be the final dictator,” Dave said. “There was never a doubt in his heart he was going to come back. He just had to make sure the body was on the same page.”

Besides his work on the field, Epstein will add to the team away from it, setting a good example.

Work to do

Mike Epstein finished his business degree and will start graduate school in the fall.

He has gained 1,169 rushing yards during his Illinois career, good for 36th on the all-time lis, and he has a chance to move up in 2021.

“We all feel like Mike’s been around a long time because he started as a freshman,” Dave said.

Because of time lost to injuries, he could also return in 2022, but that’s a discussion for another day.

This season, Epstein will work behind a veteran offensive line and with an experienced quarterback in Brandon Peters.

“You want to contribute to the team and there’s a lot of optimism with so many experienced kids coming back,” Dave said. “The goals are high. As he told Coach Bielema, ‘When we’re holding the Big Ten trophy together in Indy next December, it’s going to be more special because of all that’s taken place with the journey.’”

Good news: the running back has a place to stay in C-U.

Mike will again room with his friend, standout linebacker Jake Hansen who is coming back for his sixth season of college football this fall.

“The families are real close,” Dave said.

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-393-8248 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

College Football Reporter/Columnist

Bob Asmussen is a college football reporter and columnist for The News-Gazette. His email is asmussen@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@BobAsmussen).

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