1. Mike Epstein
Illinois has a lot of talent on their roster for the 2020 campaign, which will probably be played in 2021. Of that talent, Mike Epstein might be the player I am rooting for the most to have a breakout season.
The 6-foot, 205-pound Fort Lauderdale, Florida native was poised to have a great career when the Illini snagged him out of the prestigious St. Thomas Aquinas High School. Checking in just shy of the top 1000, Epstein had all of the makings of a star.
Quick feet and an underrated power in his game, Epstein broke out his freshman season with 346 yards and 3 touchdowns on just 57 attempts. The best game for the young running back was his 21 carry, 111-yard performance against Western Kentucky that year. He would only manage three more games before being ruled out for the season with a foot injury.
2018 started off just as strong for Epstein as his freshman debut. Two 100+ yard games in the first three contests set the table for what should have been a solid, full, season. Epstein once again dealt with injuries and didn’t play in the final five games of his sophomore campaign.
The talent has always shown for Epstein and did once again in 2019 as he picked up 45 yards on just eight carries in the first game of the season. But, much like the previous two years, Epstein didn’t make it through the game and suffered a season-ending injury in week one.
Now Epstein enters his junior year – he took a medical redshirt one season so he could save eligibility. Healthy again, the talented running back looks to make an impact on, arguably, the most talented Illinois team since the Rose Bowl run in the last 2000s.
Epstein is back in his old stomping grounds touting the rock behind quarterback Brandon Peters. A rebound season would be great for Epstein, and the entire fanbase would love to see the kid preserve considering what he has been through.
The best season Epstein has registered so far is 60 attempts for 411 yards and 3 touchdowns. Honestly, if we could get that out of him in 2020, I believe that would be a successful season. When I say successful season, I mean that injury-wise and because of the depth Illinois has at running back this year.
Epstein won’t likely be asked to be the main ball carrier, as the Orange and Blue added Chase Brown last season and are bringing back Jakari Norwood and Kenyon Sims, both contributors from 2019. The wildcard for the backfield is Reggie Love, who is the highest-rated running back recruit the Illini have snagged in years. Love should see some serious playing time and could be the full-time starter by seasons end.
Goal one for Epstein is to stay healthy. Goal two is to build on numbers and be a solid contributor for this team. Illinois is going to have success if Epstein has success. I think we all hope he has a huge rebound year.