Illinois Football: What to expect out of Mike Epstein in year 2

TAMPA, FL - SEPTEMBER 15: Running back Mike Epstein
TAMPA, FL - SEPTEMBER 15: Running back Mike Epstein /

Year two for Illinois football running back Mike Epstein will be a big test; will the sophomore rise to the occasion?

The start of the 2017 Illinois Football season, and year two of the Lovie Smith era, began with a slew of questions:  How will this many starting freshman fare in the Big Ten?  How will Chayce Crouch perform as the starting quarterback?  Will this young defense start to take shape under the Hall-of-Fame-level coaching of Hardy Nickerson?  These questions were answered very quickly.

The freshmen took their licks on offense and defense, with the offensive line getting the brunt of the criticism; having 4 of 5 freshmen lineman finishing the season.  Crouch was not a Big Ten quarterback.  Unfortunately, Garrick McGee’s plan to groom Crouch into a viable quarterbacking option probably cost him his job.

Finally, and possibly most encouraging, the young defense was the brightest spot of this Illini team.  Players like freshman Bobby Roundtree showed flashes of a future All-Big Ten defensive player, and Bennett Williams was named an ESPN Freshman All-American.  These storylines consumed fans throughout the season, but one positional story that came as a surprise to many was the swift and exciting introduction of freshman running back Mike Epstein.

Epstein, a 6-foot running back from St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was the longest tenured commit in the Illini’s 2017 recruitment class.  He committed all the way back in August 2015 to the Tim Beckman regime before he even started his junior season in high school.

Due to a knee injury, Epstein had to sit out the entire 2015 season, only to come back his senior season and put up a stat line of 1,500 total yards and 16 rushing touchdowns.  He led his team to a Florida 7A State Championship and topped off his senior campaign by being named the Sun Sentinel’s Player of the Year.

With all this success, some big named suitors came calling.  After visiting Michigan, a few weeks following the announcement that newly named head coach Bill Cubit would not remain head coach for the upcoming season, and late interest from the likes of Indiana, Louisville, and Miami, Epstein remained true to his commitment and enrolled at Illinois in the fall of 2017.

The Illini’s running back group had quite a bit of turnover from the 2015 season through the 2017 season.  After an impressive freshman campaign in 2015, in which he split the starting role with Josh Ferguson and led the team in carries (157), rushing yards (723) and touchdowns (6), Ke’Shawn Vaughn was named the Illinois Offensive Newcomer of the Year.  To start his 2016 sophomore year, Vaughn was named to the Doak Walker Award watch list, and Illini fans had high hopes he could replicate his freshman season, if not immensely improve it.

At the beginning, Vaughn appeared to be on that improvement path, posting a successful stat line against Murray State before being pulled on account of a lopsided score. He followed that up with an impressive stat line against a strong North Carolina team led by now Chicago Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky.  Following being pulled in Game one, against Murray State, Vaughn was replaced by junior running back Kendrick Foster.

Now, during a blowout win such as that one, the starter being pulled shouldn’t be so memorable, but what Foster was able to do with his moment makes this important.  Foster went on to rush for 118 yards on only 4 carries. He also scored on two of those touches.  That’s insane!  Slowly over the next few games, Foster’s productivity started to dwarf Vaughn’s, and just as Vaughn did to Ferguson in 2015, Foster took the starting role from Vaughn in 2016.

This position swap, while similar to Vaughn’s, had its own interesting setup.  Foster had all intentions to transfer after a frustrating 2015 sophomore season in which he only accounted for 78 rushing yards and 1 touchdown.  But, thankfully for him and the Illini, he stuck with his commitment to the University of Illinois, and it paid off for him in the 2016 season where he led the team in rushing yards (720), rushing TD’s (7), total TD’s (9), and all-purpose yards (1,328).

Foster had very similar hype leading into the 2017 season as Vaughn did leading into the 2016 season; he was on the Doak Walker Award watch list and was the rushing leader from the previous year.  With Vaughn transferring to Vanderbilt following the loss of his starting role, there was a big need to solidify the backup spot at running back.

Illinois football
CHAMPAIGN, IL – SEPTEMBER 09: Illinois running back Mike Epstein (26) runs the ball during a non-conference college football game between the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers and the University of Illinois Fighting Illini, September 09, 2017, at Memorial Stadium, Champaign, IL. Illinois won, 20-7. (Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

Dre Brown, coming off of two season-ending injuries, and Reggie Corbin seemed to be the best fits for the backup spot, but newcomers Ra’Von Bonner and Mike Epstein seemed poised to compete, with Epstein immediately showing out at fall practice.  Once the season started, Lovie Smith didn’t let the chips fall as they may, he moved swiftly, and named Epstein the starter for week one against Ball State and Epstein didn’t disappoint.  He scored his first two NCAA touchdowns and assisted an inexperienced offense to a win.

Unfortunately, in only his second Big Ten conference game against Iowa, Epstein suffered a season-ending injury, ceasing what looked to be a very special freshman year.  Now, going into his sophomore season, what should we expect from the young, yet experienced, tailback?

Not being able to participate in spring football, Epstein has been itching to return to the field but understands the wait will be worth it.  In an interview with‘s Jeremy Werner, Epstein point blank stated: “It sucks.”  But when asked about the addition of Rod Smith and the implementation of the new offensive scheme, Epstein was elated, saying “I love it.  This is like the offense I ran in high school.”

Next: Projected floor and ceiling for the Illini recruits in year one

I have a feeling we are all in store to see a very big year out of Epstein.  With the staff wanting to slow play Epstein back into the mix, and with the introduction of this new offense giving him and other athletes out of the backfield more spacing, this could be special.  If healthy, and that is a big ‘if’ after coming off a foot injury, with this new offense giving more possibilities to the running game, we may be in line for our first 1,000-yard rusher since Mikel Leshoure in 2010.  Nearly 10 years, since a 1,000-yard rusher, could this be the year?  Mike Epstein gave us a lot of hope last year, and I believe he is ready to pick up right where he left off.