Mike Epstein looks to come back stronger after knee injury


Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

Current senior Mike Epstein runs the ball during the game against Akron on Aug. 31, 2019 at Memorial Stadium.

By Josh Pietsch, Staff Writer

In 29 days, running back Mike Epstein will put the pads on under his Illinois football jersey for the first time since Week 1 of the 2019 season. Epstein and the Illini faced Akron on Aug. 31, 2019, about nine months after the running back’s second season-ending injury.

Not even three quarters in against Akron and an anterior cruciate ligament injury would force Epstein to watch the 2019 season from the sideline.

Needless to say, when Epstein takes the field at Camp Randall Stadium to face Wisconsin in four weeks, the moment will be memorable.

“It’s gonna be a lot of emotions, but I’m gonna save that for that moment,” Epstein said. “We’ve got work to put in now, but that’s in the back of my mind motivating me.”

Three substantial lower-body injuries impacted Epstein’s mental health almost as much as his physical health. Instead of letting the game go, Epstein decided his time at Illinois was far from over.

“I know it’s easy to get lost when you’re not playing or feel bad for yourself, but that’s not something I wanted to be a part of,” Epstein said.

Despite not being able to play on the field in 2019, Epstein made a point to be at every meeting and practice to stay connected with his team. He said being surrounded by the winning environment of a bowl-bound team helped through his recovery.

After a full year of recovery time, however, Epstein is back healthy and ready to make an impact in 2020. The initial postponement of football on Aug. 11 pushed the season back, but it gave Epstein more time to heal and get ready to be back on the field. Epstein added the knee feels “great.”

Over the offseason, Epstein had the chance to work with NFL running back in Frank Gore to train and learn from him. Gore has dealt with similar injuries, including two torn ACLs, so he was a great person for Epstein to work with.

“It was a good person to hang out with. He took me under his wing so I was really appreciative of him,” Epstein said. “He’s been through a lot … He just taught me how to work and how to take care of my body … I’m confident about what I did with him.”

Additionally, Epstein has been working on new ways to prevent injuries. Yoga and extra stretching have been a key part to improve functional movement. Epstein added range of motion has became equally as important as “loading weight up and trying to get a rep or two.”

Epstein has played in 13 total games as Illini, collecting 802 rushing yards and 145 receiving yards. He was supposed to be a big component in the rushing game last year with Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown prior to the injury.

Redshirt sophomore Chase Brown, another running back expected to be in the mix with Epstein, has been practicing with Epstein this past year after Brown transferred to Illinois from Western Michigan. Brown says he’s already learned a lot from his teammate and that they push each other in practice to get better.

“We are (pushing each other during practice),” Brown said. “He knows what he’s doing, knows the offense well so I’ve learned from him and I try to pick his brain every single day. It’s only helping me get better, I think we help each other when we do drills. I really pay attention to the way he moves and his footwork on certain things. It can only make me better learning from that.”

Epstein and Chase are expected to be in a similar situation as Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown were last year for the Illini. Corbin and Dre split carries all last year and were an effective rushing combo. Epstein says he and Chase learned a lot from them and plan to “build on that and carry over what they had.”

Epstein expects more people than just Chase and himself to make a difference this year in the rushing game, naming redshirt sophomore Jakari Norwood and freshman Reggie Love as guys he could see on the field. He thinks the running back position is one that is slept on for the Illini and expects big things out of his group for this season.

“I think it is an overlooked group for sure. I mean that doesn’t matter to me, I don’t think it matters to us as a group. I think we know the work we put in on a daily basis and we know what we’re capable of doing … At a time and point, it’ll show,” Epstein said. 

Despite missing 20 games through his first three years as an Illini, Epstein has battled through the injuries and is ready to make an impact in an abnormal season.

Until the Illini head to Madison to face the Badgers in Week 1, Epstein committed to working hard and being in the best shape he can be for the season opener.

“I’m blessed,” Epstein said. “I’m able to be healthy now, got some extra time under my belt to make this a special season and I’m gonna do everything in my power to do that.”



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