CHAMPAIGN — Every player on the Illinois football team knows Mike Epstein's injury history and the work he's put into being a healthy running back.
He missed the final seven games of his freshman season in 2017 with a foot injury and worked himself back to be ready at the beginning of last season. Epstein played the first seven games last year and rushed for 411 yards and three touchdowns before missing the final five games with a foot injury.
Epstein, a junior from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., had offseason surgery and at one point was instructed by his doctors to avoid putting any weight on his foot. After he was cleared, and for the second offseason in a row, he worked himself back to being completely healthy and had one of the best training camps of any running back on the team.
On Saturday, he rushed for a team-high 45 yards before being carted off the field with a towel over his head in the second half with a knee injury. On Monday, Illinois head coach Lovie Smith announced Epstein will miss the remainder of the season. It's the third time in his three-year career that he won't finish a season healthy.
“Unfortunate," Smith said. "Mike has been through so much, such a good football player. ... Sometimes there are blessings in disguises that we don’t really realize; coming back from a serious injury with his foot, maybe this is going to give that a little bit more time to heal up and we’ll get the best version of Mike as we can."
Epstein still has two years of eligibility left.
“He’s had a lot of tough injuries, so you can imagine how he’s feeling right now," Smith said. "We’re all feeling that for him. You move on. You can’t stay in that hole very long. It has to be about him coming back, which he will. His career is not over."
About two hours after the press conference began, Epstein made a Twitter post about his injury.
"So many thoughts and emotions but it’s when things seem worst, that you must not quit," he wrote. "Huge thank you to the fans, my friends, family and my brothers for the unwavering support and love. I’ll find a way to help my brothers this year. The climb to the top continues. Back to work."
So many thoughts and emotions but it’s when things seem worst, that you must not quit. Huge thank you to the fans, my friends, family and my brothers for the unwavering support and love. I’ll find a way to help my brothers this year. The climb to the top continues. Back to work✌️
Offensive coordinator Rod Smith's voice lowered and slowed when asked about Epstein's injury. The running back room is the deepest position on the team, and Rod Smith knows he has other players who are capable of stepping into Epstein's shoes, but he's also seen Epstein work himself healthy to be a key contributor to the offense.
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“Heart goes out for the kid," Rod Smith said. "He does everything right. He does everything you ask of him. He’s as good of a teammate as there is. All I keep thinking about is (former receiver) Mikey Dudek, right? Same scenario.
"All this young man does is does everything right. If anybody deserves to have success, it’s Mike Epstein. He might have had the best fall camp of any of the backs we had. I was excited to watch him take off this year."
Smh can’t catch a break. One of the hardest workers I know. Love you bro. @Dat26Kid 2️⃣6️⃣
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Epstein has played 13 games for Illinois over three seasons, and has totaled 947 yards, including 802 on the ground, with seven touchdowns. He led Illinois in rushing yards (346) and yards per carry (6.1) as a true freshman in 2017 and tied for the team lead in touchdowns (4). He became the fifth true freshman in Illinois history to lead the team in rushing yards.
When he's been healthy, he's been a game-changer on the field. In training camp, Epstein wasn't interested in revisiting the injuries that slowed his first two college seasons. Instead, he was focused on his health and being able to help the Illini have one of the best rushing attacks in the Big Ten.
“He got robbed," junior offensive tackle Alex Palczewski said. "If not the, he’s one of the hardest working players on our team. It’s just terrible. He eats, breathes and sleeps football. Every single thing he does he thinks, ‘Am I getting better as a football player?’
"I haven’t seen him eat a single cheat meal the past two years. It’s unbelievable. He has a super hard work ethic. It broke my heart. It broke everyone’s heart. We know he rehabbed, he worked super hard. He worked his tail off all summer, getting back and getting healthy."
PHOTOS: Illinois beats Akron
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Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25