Illinois' running back Reggie Corbin (2) during University of Illinois Football Media Day at Memorial Stadium in Champaign on Tuesday, August 6, 2019.

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Normally on Media Day, you’d think the star would have a crowd around him. For an hour-plus.

But that wasn’t how it worked Tuesday for Reggie Corbin, Illinois’ Doak Walker Award candidate entering his senior season.

Oh sure, there were some takers.

The local guy (OK, it was me) chatted with Corbin for about 10 minutes. And a handful of reporters popped over to ask questions.

It was nothing like the pack surrounding freshman quarterback Isaiah Williams. Or freshman defensive back Marquez Beason.

Of course, Tuesday was the first time Williams and Beason were available to the media. And the only time they will talk to the press until they play in a game.

Corbin, on the other hand, talks to reporters every day. Happily.

He was one of three Illini who represented the team at the Big Ten Kickoff in Chicago. Going forward, Corbin will be the story from the opponent’s standpoint, every week of the season. He will be the guy wearing the target. The player opposing defensive coordinators want to stop.

How does that feel?

“I never look at anyone’s expectations because I have expectations for myself,” Corbin said. “I’m not worried about what anybody else expects.”

Back in the day

Corbin wasn’t part of Media Day his freshman season in 2015. An injury kept him out.

“I didn’t get to do it,” Corbin said.

Now, he is a team leader who participated in Media Day for the final time.

“It’s fun man,” Corbin said. “It’s crazy that it’s my last one as an Illini.”

He watched the freshmen face reporters. Saw how they reacted.

“They’re having a blast, you can tell,” Corbin said. “They finally get to put that uniform on and know what it feels like to be a part of the team. It’s just a blessing for them. I just look around and try to be happy for them.”

The young guys treat the senior with respect. As they should.

“Just based on the year I had last year and how they perceive that,” he said. “They listen to me, of course. I’m just trying to do exactly what the older guys did for me when I was coming up. We’ve got a very talented freshman class and transfers. All those guys are respectful and hard working and very humble.”

Someday, they will be the seniors finishing their careers. Like Corbin. It seems like only yesterday he arrived from Maryland.

“Champaign is like a second home,” Corbin said. “I couldn’t think of any other place to spend my college career. I love the people here. I’m just happy for everybody else that gets to experience it as well.”

Long climb

Last summer, the Corbin interview requests were limited. At best.

In 2017, playing in former offensive coordinator Garrick McGee’s offense, Corbin ran just 18 times for 78 yards. Corbin needed a change and he got it.

When Lovie Smith hired Rod Smith as McGee’s replacement before 2018, it gave new life to Corbin’s college career. Working in a system that fit his skillset, Corbin ran for 1,085 yards and nine touchdowns last season.

Corbin credits Rod Smith and others.

“Having a coach who was willing to get to know me and understand me and put me in the best positions to succeed,” Corbin said. “And having a team like that. That offensive line is ridiculous.”

He became the school’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Mikel Leshoure in 2010.

Corbin was third in the country in yards per carry, averaging 8.5 yards each try. He ranked just ahead of Clemson superstar Travis Etienne and two better than former teammate Ke’Shawn Vaughn, now at Vanderbilt.

How he do that? Lovie Smith has a string of reasons.

“Hard work,” Smith said. “I think that’s the answer. We brought in a new offense. It’s not like we went from throwing it every snap to a more balanced, read offense. That’s not the case. A lot of it has to be his development, just learning more football, getting ready to play, getting an opportunity to play. I think all of these things contributed to it. ... Then having some success early on. To say, ‘I can do this.’ The talent has always been there for Reggie.”

The coach wants more.

“Hopefully, he can make another jump, that next leap,” Smith said. “Now, it’s about all of us taking that next step.”

Corbin has 1,686 career yards, good for 23rd on the Illini all-time list and just behind Hall of Famer J.C. Caroline. Another 1,000 in 2019 will move him into the Top 10. He is set up for a monster senior season. Four offensive line starters return. Guys he talks to all the time.

“I can tell them exactly what’s going on,” Corbin said. “They know when I’m going to cut back. They know exactly what I’m looking for. We understand each other. They know I’m always going to have their back and I’m always give it all I’ve got.”

Corbin has big plans for his linemen.

“My goal is to get all of those guys drafted,” he said.

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 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).