Jakari Norwood

Illinois running back Jakari Norwood takes a handoff from quarterback Brandon Peters at practice on Tuesday outside Memorial Stadium in Champaign.

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CHAMPAIGN — Jakari Norwood got his first real opportunity to show what he could do with the football in his hands during last year’s game at Connecticut.

Illinois was already down a running back following Mike Epstein’s season-ending knee injury in the 2019 season opener against Akron. A hip pointer saw Reggie Corbin held out against the Huskies as a precaution.

That opened the door for Norwood. There were carries to be had. And the 5-foot-10, 180-pound running back out of Pompano Beach, Fla., made the most of his opportunity.

Norwood set career-highs with six carries for 62 yards in Illinois’ 31-23 win at UConn. The bulk of them came as he flashed his elite top-end speed on a 50-yard carry.

Opportunities like that, however, have been few and far between for Norwood since he arrived at Illinois as an early enrollee ahead of the 2018 season.

Norwood was behind Corbin, Epstein, Dre Brown and Ra’Von Bonner on the depth chart in both 2018 and 2019.

Epstein’s still around and, healthy again, and is likely Illinois’ No. 1 running back. But Corbin and Brown have graduated. Bonner opted out of the 2020 season because of COVID-19 concerns.

The door is now more open for Norwood to assume a prominent role with the Illini.

And the redshirt sophomore is ready to seize the opportunity ahead of next Friday night’s season opener at No. 16 Wisconsin.

“Last year I definitely felt like after Reggie and Dre were stepping away I knew I was going to have to step up,” Norwood said Thursday. “I would just say me working in the offseason with the running backs, I knew that we all brought something to the game. What I bring was definitely going to help the offense.”

Illinois coach Lovie Smith is expecting as much from Norwood. The Illini intend to put Norwood’s versatility to use, with Smith noting both his speed and ability as a receiver out of the backfield — this despite few game reps in that regard. That Epstein and Chase Brown will have a role in the Illini backfield doesn’t mean Norwood can’t as well.

Norwood’s path runs more to what Smith considers ideal.

A redshirt season. Playing on the scout team in practice.

Figuring out a role and working toward it.

“I think all guys need to go through that, too,” Smith said. “Most guys don’t play right away. We had a need early (in 2016 and 2017) where a lot of guys played earlier than maybe they should have in an ideal situation.

“I think you should go through the process of being on the scout team. Living in the weight room. Just getting the system down and figuring out your role. There’s a progression you have to go through. Jakari has, and there’s been flashes we’ve seen. He’s another one of those guys we want to see take this next step, which we believe he’ll do.”

Norwood has certainly changed his body since he arrive at Illinois in January 2018. He said he weighed about 158 pounds as a freshman. While Norwood is listed at 180 pounds on the Illinois roster, he said he’s probably around 186.

How has that changed his game? Norwood said he’s able to drop his shoulder on a would-be tackler with confidence. But packing on some necessary pounds — and strength — didn’t zap Norwood of his speed. Norwood credits Illinois strength and conditioning coach Lou Hernandez in that aspect.

“Working out with Coach Lou, you’re definitely going to keep your speed and stay in shape,” Norwood said. “It’s the expectation that you make your times and make your weight. You try not to be that guy that falls out of one of the categories. You’re doing everything you can just to stay in that range, and I think that helped a lot.”

Norwood used the last two seasons to do more than just add strength to his 5-10 frame. He also has a better grasp of the Illinois playbook and a better grasp of in-game situations because of his time spent with Corbin and Dre Brown. Norwood said both helped him learn how to read defensive coverages and how to pick up blitzes.

That redshirt season in 2018 and taking a back seat to the veteran Illinois running backs in 2019 helped Norwood understand he wasn’t quite ready. But he’s ready now — confident in his abilities and what he can bring to this Illinois team.

Norwood received plenty of support and words of encouragement from the other Illinois running backs the last two seasons. Dre Brown exited the program with perhaps the strongest endorsement of all.

“He was like, ‘If you just get a little bit more weight on you, you’ll be a complete back, and you’re going to do a lot for this team. I can just see it the way your run and what you’ve shown me so far,’” Norwood said.

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

College/Prep Sports Reporter

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).