Illinois Football: Mike Epstein Emerges at RB as Homecoming Trip Approaches

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mike epstein

Google Illinois football player Mike Epstein, and one of the first links to emerge is the Wikipedia bio of the 1960s-1970s Major League Baseball pitcher. Until you actually click on the biography, and read the very first sentence, you won’t believe the nickname this gentleman had during his MLB playing days; which spanned eight years and five different clubs.

Mike Epstein the former first baseman won a gold medal with USA baseball at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

In other words, he’s a very accomplished athlete, and Mike Epstein the Illinois football player could well be on his way to carving out his own legacy too.

mike epstein illini football

A true freshman, he’s just two games into his college football career, but right now he’s well ahead of the long retired power hitter on the SERPs (Search Engine Result Pages), and hopefully this “ramps up SEO.”

Epstein had a team-high 105 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns in his Illini debut against Ball State, including the go-ahead one-yard plunge with 2:06 left in the game. He had 21 carries for 111 yards in the 20-7 in a big upset win over Western Kentucky Saturday night.

It was a game in which Illinois football conveyed an approach and a philosophy that if executed properly week in and week out, is a tried and true winning formula. It’s also an identity that Lovie Smith found a lot of success with as head coach of the Chicago Bears.

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That identity is built on a grind the clock rushing attack and that’s where Epstein comes in, as the “three yards and a cloud of dust” kind of runner who perfectly suits this approach. Epstein says he models his game after Le’Veon Bell, and at times it definitely shows. Among former Illinois football rushing sensations, he says he admires the game of Rashard Mendenhall, but acknowledges that they are vastly different types of runners.

While Epstein’s early success might have caught many of us off guard, Smith says he could foresaw it.

“He’s been like that throughout camp,” said Smith late Saturday night.

“Normally, if you practice that way you’ll have a chance to be playing that way. The first game, no one really knows anything about you. The second game, everyone knew he started. Again, you want to see young guys take that type of step their second time out.”

hurricane irma

This week, Mike Epstein looks to take another next step as Illinois heads to his home state of Florida. They’ll take on the nationally ranked South Florida Bulls in Tampa, in a game that had been in serious doubt about where it would be played and when. USF had to cancel their contest last week, at Connecticut, over travel concerns due to Hurricane Irma.

The Bulls might not have been able to come home as Florida was under evacuation, due to the strongest recorded tropical storm in north Atlantic Ocean history. No hurricane to ever hit the United States has ever reached the same wind speeds as Irma; a buzz saw double the size of 1992’s Hurricane Andrew.

Epstein hails from Ft. Lauderdale, and his parents came up to Champaign from south Florida this past week to see their son play. They flew home on Tuesday while Epstein’s brother remained in the Miami metro area the entire time.

“My brother’s doing well, he’s safe and that’s all I care about,” Epstein said Monday night.

He added that they were not hit too hard by the hurricane: “it was limited thank god.”

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Irma shifted course and went up the Gulf Coast of Florida, instead of the Atlantic side where hurricanes typically go. It weakened during land fall as passed over Tampa (where USF is located) as a category 1 Sunday night.

Mike Epstein is one of 14 players and two coaches on the Illinois football team who hail from the sunshine state. Smith still has property in Tampa, and his last job before the Illini was coaching the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It will be a homecoming game of sorts, but one in which the Illini are a whopping 18 point underdog to Charlie Strong’s side.

Epstein comes in currently ranking fifth in the nation among true-freshmen in rushing yards per game (82.5).

The Broward County high school player of the year last season and three star recruit was the feature back in week one for the Illini and the starter in week two. However, we’ve seen a tremendous amount of turnover at the RB1 position in the Lovie Smith era of Illinois football, and the fluidity hasn’t been caused by injuries either.

mike epstein

In just 14 games, Smith has gone from Ke’Shawn Vaughn to Kendrick Foster to now Mike Epstein as his go-to running back.

Whomever tops the depth chart, even when healthy, cannot get complacent lest he be replaced.

Epstein admits there’s competition among the backs.

“We definitely compete with each other. We’re teammates but we try to make each other better in each way,” he said.

“So whenever we see some something that the other guy can get better at, we let each other know.”

As for Epstein the baseball player, Epstein the football player says he has heard of him, but doesn’t really know much about him.

Obviously, the MLB journeyman is long before the running back’s time, but we’re fans of both Mike Epsteins.

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank.net and TheBank.News, which is partnered with News Now and Minute Media. Banks, a former writer for the Washington Times, NBC Chicago.com and Chicago Tribune.com, currently contributes regularly to WGN CLTV and Chicago Now.

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