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Epstein

Illinois running back Mike Epstein will play on Saturday after missing the final seven games of last year with a foot injury.

CHAMPAIGN — For nearly a month the Illini defense has been chasing around some combination of A.J. Bush Jr. and four other dual-threat quarterbacks on the practice field.

They're getting used to seeing the run-pass options and the up-tempo offense that new offensive coordinator Rod Smith has installed in his first season in Champaign.

On Saturday, the defense will get an in-game test when the high-speed Kent State offense comes to Memorial Stadium for the season-opener under new head coach Sean Lewis, a former assistant coach at Eastern Illinois.

"It has to prepare you more when you've seen it on a daily basis since the spring," Illinois head coach Lovie Smith said.

Defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson's defense will be tasked with slowing either quarterback Dustin Crum, who started last year for the Golden Flashes, or junior college transfer Woody Barrett.

“They have potential to be high powered," Nickerson said. "They’ve got two quarterbacks who can really move this offense."

Running back Justin Rankin returns after leading the team in rushing last season to go along with a deep group of receivers that includes Mike Carrigan, Kavious Price, Antwan Dixon and Trey Harrell.

“They are quick, nifty guys who have the ability to get open on the back end," Nickerson said. "This is a team that has a lot of potential, especially looking at the quarterback position."

Last year the Illini got their taste of high-tempo offenses against South Florida in a 47-23 Week 3 loss in Tampa, where South Florida piled up 680 yards of total offense.

Kent State, which was also 2-10 last season, doesn't have the same talent as that South Florida team, but the concepts the Illini learned last year in a hard lesson will carry over.

“When we played them it was tempo, tempo, tempo and they had us out there looking like fools for a minute," defensive lineman Tymir Oliver said of last year's game against USF. "We watched the film back then. I’m happy that coach Rod Smith's offense is like the same that we’re going against a majority of time in the NCAA and I’m grateful for that. The tempo is not unexpected. It’s not something we haven’t seen and we adjusted to it."

The Illini defensive line is deep and Del'Shawn Phillips is in his second year with the program after a breakout game in Week 1 last season. Sophomore Jake Hansen will bolster the linebackers in his first game in more than a year after tearing his ACL at the end of camp last year.

The defensive backs, like the line, is a fairly young group that includes ESPN Freshman All-American Bennett Williams embarking on his sophomore season.

On offense, the Illini will finally deploy Rod Smith's high-octane offense. 

Lovie Smith announced Bush, a fifth-year graduate transfer, as the team's starting quarterback after his performance in training camp.

Receiver Mikey Dudek, who returned last season after missing two consecutive seasons with torn ACLs, is back and completely healthy to go along with an improved stable of receivers that includes Ricky Smalling, Dominic Stampley and converted linebacker Justice Williams.

Rod Smith's offense likely won't need to show too many state secrets against the Golden Flashes, and Smith says about 85 percent of the offense has been implemented.

“We won’t give everything to them," Rod Smith said. "I told our staff we want to make sure we’re good at something and we can hang our hat on certain schemes, certain plays we know is our go to and we want to make sure that we’re good at that. We’ll go from there."

NOTES: There is a new clear-bag policy. Each ticketed guest can carry one large clear plastic/vinyl bag — either a one-gallon Ziploc-style bag, clear drawstring bag not to exceed 12-inch by 12-inch, or clear bag tote no larger than 12-inch by 6-inch by 12-inch — plus a small clutch purse (4.5-inch by 7-inch). The small clutch allows privacy for small personal items and also is easily searched. ... Illinois legend Dana Howard will be honored during the game.

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Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25

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Reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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