Akron Illinois Football

Illinois's Mike Epstein (26) runs the ball during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Akron, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019, in Champaign, Ill.

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CHAMPAIGN — Where Rod Smith’s thoughts have taken the Illinois offensive coordinator since Mike Epstein suffered a season-ending knee injury in Saturday’s season-opening 42-3 win against Akron aren’t a surprise. The comparisons that can be drawn from Epstein to former Illini wide receiver Mikey Dudek — now three season-ending injuries apiece — are almost too easy.

“Your heart goes out for the kid because he does everything right,” Smith said of Epstein. “He does everything you’ve asked of him. He’s as good of a teammate as there is. All I keep thinking about is Mikey Dudek, right? It’s the same scenario with all this young man does is does everything right. If anybody deserves to have success, it’s Mike Epstein.”

Illinois coach Lovie Smith announced Epstein is lost for the season on Monday afternoon. The junior running back was injured in the second half of Saturday’s game after leading a balanced Illini rushing attack with eight carries for 45 yards.

“What Mike can see is he has battled it,” Lovie Smith said. “Mike has a lot of eligibility left. He’ll come back as strong as ever. That’s what we’ve seen. Sometimes they are a blessing in disguise that we don’t really realize. Coming back from a serious injury with his foot, maybe it’s going to give that a little bit more time to heal up, and we’ll get the best version of Mike we can.”

This year’s season-ending injury is the quickest of Epstein’s career. The 6-foot, 205-pound running back led Illinois in rushing as a true freshman in 2017 (346 yards, three touchdowns) before a foot injury cost him the final seven games of the season. He was the third-leading rusher in 2018 (411 yards, three touchdowns) before another foot injury sidelined him the final five games.

“He’s had a lot of tough injuries,” Lovie Smith said. “You could imagine how he’s feeling right now. We all are feeling that way for him. You move on. You can’t stay in that hole very long. It has to be about him coming back, which he will. His career is not over.”

Epstein’s teammates are in his corner. Junior offensive lineman Alex Palczewski called the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., native one of — if not the — hardest working players on the team. Epstein used that work ethic in his recovery from his first two season-ending injuries.

“Every single thing that he does in his life is to make sure he gets better at football,” Palczewski said. “I haven’t seen him eat a single cheat meal in the last two years. He just eat, breathes and sleeps football. It’s devastating. My heart’s broken for him and his family because I just know how hard and how much he loves this game, but I know he’s going to attack this rehab super hard and be even better next year.

“It’s obviously hard. Rehabbing from last year and getting better and going through all these super hard workouts to be able to play and then he gets robbed. I told him, ‘Listen, you’ve got to keep on working.’ We’re all behind him.”

Epstein wasn’t the only Illinois running back not to finish Saturday’s win against Akron. Redshirt senior Reggie Corbin went down with a hip pointer, but Lovie Smith said Corbin was sore but better and was hopeful he would play Saturday at UConn.

That still leaves, however, Dre Brown, Ra’Von Bonner, Jakari Norwood and Kenyon Sims. All four got at least four carries against the Zips. Lovie Smith called the Illinois running backs the team’s “deepest group.”

“You say it with a heavy heart, it’s next man up,” Rod Smith added. “I don’t want to sound cold or callous because I feel bad for Mike, but they’re still going to kick this football off on Saturday. We’ve got to make sure we have guys ready to play.

“I think Mike would want those guys to be able to step up and take his role and take off and run with it. We have guys, in my opinion, that could be starters on a lot of teams in the Big Ten. I feel good about that room. I’ve said that all along. Now they just carry a little more weight than they did before.”

Scott Richey covers college basketball for 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).