The future of the Illinois football running game looks strong, as Mike Epstein and Chase Brown look to lead the Illini in touches this season.
Illini fans have been waiting for everything to come together for the offense, and it may come sooner than we think. Following a strong 2019 campaign, Illinois looks to build off of that success that saw the team make a bowl game.
After the graduation of running backs Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown, Mike Epstein and Chase Brown look to get the majority of touches in 2020.
Starter (RB1): Mike Epstein
Epstein has been an absolute beast when on the field. However, staying on the field has been tough for the explosive running back.
In Epstein’s freshman year, he only played in five games and missed the last seven due to injury. Despite this, he still led the team in rushing yards and yards per carry.
During his sophomore season, Epstein played in seven games, but again went down due to injuries and missed the final five games. He made the most of his time once again, averaging 6.8 yards per carry with three touchdowns.
Unfortunately, last year, Epstein went down in the opener against Akron and missed the remainder of the season.
From what Epstein has done on the field, he has proven he can be a powerful back. He has shown the ability to not only run the ball, but he has also proven to be a viable receiving back as well. If the former three-star recruit can stay healthy, he can really turn some heads in the Big Ten. I fully expect him to get the majority of touches barring injury.
Primary backup (RB2): Chase Brown
Brown transferred to Illinois from Western Michigan after his freshman season. At Western Michigan, Brown averaged 5 yards per carry and also had 12 kickoff returns for 227 yards. He is a former three-star recruit and will be a great talent to have behind Epstein.
Brown is the future premier Illinois running back, and I think he will split touches with Epstein, depending on how the season goes. He will benefit from playing behind Epstein, giving him reps while also slowly integrating into the offense before taking on a full-time role.
I expect Brown to also wreak havoc on special teams as the kickoff returner.
Illinois does have former Trinity Catholic running back, Reggie Love, coming into the program. Love should get some touches this season, and his production will be something to keep an eye on moving forward. If he comes out of the gate strong, Love might work his way up the depth chart.
Ra’Von Bonner, a senior, has opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns. Despite the ambiguity surrounding the season, Bonner would not be a deciding factor in the upcoming season. There is still much debate about the season as petitions have gone around to reinstate the season. Bonner has played three great seasons with the Illini and will be missed.
The Final Say
Champaign should be beyond excited to have Epstein, Brown and Love at running back. It will be tough missing Corbin, but I have high hopes for what these three can do.
The backfield is extremely explosive and talented. All of them just need the playing time to shine and, if we play, I think this could be the year it all comes together. If Brandon Peters can keep defenses on their toes, I think the Illini passing and running game will keep teams on their toes.