Illini running backs look to strengthen offense in new roles


Photo Courtesy of Illini Athletics

Junior Mike Epstein advances the ball down the field during the game against Penn State on Sept. 21, 2018. Epstein and sophomore Chase Brown will be given a majority of the carries for the Illini this season.

By Josh Pietsch, Staff Writer

Having two strong running backs has been the norm for recent Illini teams, and this year looks to be no different. Despite losing both Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown to graduation, offensive coordinator Rod Smith has two more players in the backfield, Mike Epstein and Chase Brown, who are expected to split carries this upcoming season.

Epstein was supposed to be in the middle of the running back mix last fall before suffering a season-ending ACL tear in the first game of the year against Akron. The redshirt junior has missed significant time as an Illini due to injury but has shown promise when he’s been on the field, as he has collected 802 rushing yards and 145 receiving yards in 13 career games.

Having missed almost an entire season after the knee injury, a full recovery is needed for Epstein to be effective. The versatile running back has trained with Frank Gore over the offseason and taken advantage of the extended break to get back to full form.

“I’ve focused on getting myself back ready and healthy and just a ton of work and rehab … I will say this has given me more time,” Epstein said. “Just taking advantage of the time and working out … I feel like I’m in good hands and ready to go.”

Chase Brown played four games last season to preserve a redshirt year after transferring from Western Michigan. The sophomore has a very similar game to Dre Brown in his strength and explosiveness and is expected to give the Illini good carries this season with Epstein.

Brown only saw the field a handful of times last fall but still used his time productively. Between working on his game on and off the field, Brown feels ready to go for this upcoming season after learning a lot his first year on the team.

“Last year was a big year to work on my mental, and the first thing Coach Bellamy said to me was make every rep count,” Brown said. “I could have just sat back and gone on with the flow for the whole year, but it became important to me to make the most of every rep I got and take each rep as a learning experience and a way to make myself better.”

Both running backs were able to work with Corbin and Dre Brown last fall, who were able to productively work together and use their strength at different times. Splitting carries is a big ask for two capable starters, but Epstein and Chase Brown plan on using what they learned last year to help them this season.

“I can’t say losing Reggie and Dre is a good thing, they were really good backs and provided really good leadership for our room,” Epstein said. “We’re definitely gonna miss them and they’re great players and showed us the way for a while so we’re just gonna try and build and improve on that.”

Not only do the pair of backs think they can work well together, but they also have high praise for each other. Epstein said he’s had a great time practicing with Brown and that the two complement each other nicely.

“(Chase) is a really good player and person, we like to push each other and work really hard,” Epstein said. “It’s healthy to have someone that pushes you and I try to push him.”

Brown had similar comments regarding Epstein, saying the two are competitive during practice and make each other better players.

“I wanna do better than him and he wants to do better than me on each rep and that’s just one way we’re making each other better,” Brown said. “I want to be the best player possible just as much as he does … He pushes me every day to perform well because he’s always performing well.”

The two rushers have unique skill sets, but what they believe to have in common is speed. With a great offensive line blocking for them, Epstein and Brown anticipate their speed to be a driving force in this team’s offense and to be even better than what the Illini had last year.

“Compared to last year I feel like we have more speed and power,” Brown said. “We have a really deep running back room this year. … We’re all hungry to show what we can do individually but power and speed is definitely something we have over last year.”

If Epstein and Brown find a dynamic that makes them better, the two can strengthen a team that’s already anticipated to have its best offense since Lovie Smith became head coach. Last fall showed a great display of talent in the running game, but this year’s backs are determined they can be better.

“We each have to step up and take control and leadership,” Epstein said. “(Reggie and Dre) were a great combo, but we can be really good as well as long as we keep working hard and doing all the right things.”


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