CHAMPAIGN — The checklist of problem areas one game into the Illini football season is long. Plenty long.
Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said starting quarterback Chayce Crouch was more nervous than expected and seemed transfixed watching the defensive line. That’s fine, except that Crouch is coached to keep his eyes on the secondary.
The offensive line was a jumble from the start when disciplinary action kept starters Christian DiLauro and Larry Boyd off the field for the entire first quarter. By the time they were settling back in, starting center Doug Kramer was helped off the field with a knee injury. That unit never looked in sync.
A young defense, which started three true freshmen for the first time since 1980, struggled to get off the field on third down.
But there’s a list of positives, too, and it includes the return of wide receiver/punt returner Mike Dudek, a pair of turnovers generated by middle linebacker Tre Watson and freshman punter Blake Hayes, the left-footed Australian who averaged 46 yards on four punts.
At the top of that list just might be the promising play of true freshman running back Mike Epstein, who carried 11 times for 54 yards (4.9 yards per carry) and ran for two touchdowns. He also had two receptions for 32 yards, returned kickoffs and showed that the coaching staff has an unusual amount of trust in this 19-year-old from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Coach Lovie Smith said he learned to trust Epstein long before he ever put on at Illini uniform.
“He didn’t play like a freshman,” Smith said. “He wanted the ball. He couldn’t have had a better opening day.”
Epstein, who played for one of the top high school programs in Florida and led St. Thomas Aquinas to the state 7A state championship, had already verbally committed to Illinois when Bill Cubit was still the head coach.
The arrival of Smith in March of 2016 came at a time when other schools were already trying to convince him to reconsider his decision.
Miami (Fla.) was calling. So was UCLA. He couldn’t resist taking a visit to Michigan.
“When we got here, he was the one guy who had already committed,” McGee said. “We looked at the film the first day we were here and said, ‘We’ve got to do whatever we need to get this guy.’
“At the time I think he was on a trip to Michigan as I was watching the film and I was like, ‘OK, we’ve got to get to his parents immediately and make sure they know where we stand with him.’”
Before long, Epstein and his family were traveling to Champaign to meet Smith face-to-face.
“When I met with Coach Smith in person I was blown away, just the humbleness he had,” Epstein said. “He’s been where I want to be. I want to follow that path and I don’t think there’s a better (coaching) staff.
“At the end of the day I knew this is where I wanted to be.”
Smith said Epstein and his family promised they were 100 percent committed, despite the distraction of other schools trying to get involved late.
“When his family visited they said, ‘Hey, we’re locked in. We love the University of Illinois so you can count on us,’” Smith said. “Mike is a man of his word and he’s done everything we’ve asked.”
One reason Epstein picked Illinois was the promise of early playing time. That was a big part of Illinois’ recruiting pitch. But trust isn’t always handed to freshmen.
In the season opener against Ball State, total trust was given to Epstein. He was sent out to return the opening kickoff, given plenty of reps as a running back and his touchdown in the fourth quarter put Illinois ahead for good.
Epstein was delighted to see new teammate Dudek excel, too. Dudek returned after missing two full seasons because of ACL tears. The second injury was addressed by renowned surgery Dr. James Andrews, who has performed surgery on many high-profile athletes.
Epstein knows all about the magic of Dr. Andrews, having visited him for ACL surgery that cost him his junior year of high school.
“I told Mikey since day one that there’s no better place to go than Dr. Andrews," Epstein said. "I know he’s feeling better than ever. That’s what he has told me and I believe it.”
Before the season began, McGee told anyone who will listen to expect big things from Epstein.
“He’s the best player from the best program in Florida,” McGee said.
It was a very bold statement. But Epstein’s opening-game performance made McGee look good.
“He’s fast, he’s talented, he’s nimble and he knows how to set up blocks,” McGees said. “He’s very level-headed.
“He might have surprised a lot of people but for me, when things got tight late in that game, I got ahold of him and said, ‘All right, man, let’s finish this off.’”
Epstein did with his second touchdown run and there’s little doubt he’ll be part of the game plan when Illinois hosts Western Kentucky at 7 p.m. Saturday.