URBANA — Mike Epstein feels the hands of a defender hit him during practice, but it doesn't appear he cares.
The team doesn't tackle in the early parts of Illinois football training camp, so if a defender gets two hands on the ball carrier, the play is whistled dead. Nothing in that understood social construct says Epstein has to stop running, and he doesn't.
It's going to take more than a whistle to slow Epstein, a junior running back. Epstein, though, isn't interested in talking about what could have stopped him. He doesn't want to dwell on missing the final seven games of his freshman season with a foot injury, or the final five games of last year. He spent the offseason between his freshman and sophomore year resting and healing.
He wanted to build on his freshman season where he rushed for 346 yards and three touchdowns in five games. As a sophomore, he started stacking blocks on top of one another, picking up where he left off. In seven games he had 411 rushing yards and three touchdowns before missing the final five games of the season, and most of the Wisconsin game before that.
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“I’m confident when I’m on the field, healthy," Epstein said. "I can do my thing. That’s the key. I’ve done a lot to get to this point. That’s not where my head’s at right now. I’m not focused on anything that has to do with my past. I just want to make the most of my future and every day I’m on the field."
Epstein, a 6-foot, 205-pounder, has 757 yards and six scores on just 117 attempts — 6.5 yards per carry. He had surgery in November and was ordered to stay off of his foot. Simple tasks such as showering were a struggle. But in two practices at training camp he has shown the running ability, pass-catching ability and blocking ability.
He wants to be a part of what he feels is a strong running back group alongside Reggie Corbin, Ra'Von Bonner, Dre Brown, Jakari Norwood and Kenyon Sims.
"I think this might be something like the Big Ten has never seen," Epstein said. "We’ve got a stable of backs. We’re deep at this position and depth is our friend. I don’t really think it matters who is out there. We’re all capable of doing so much."
When camp opened on Friday, Illinois head coach Lovie Smith stood among a large group of reporters and fielded questions. The reporters, Smith said, may have missed a strong day from Epstein, but he noticed.
“Mike is an outstanding football player," Smith said. "Whenever he’s been on the field, we’ve been a whole lot better of a football team. We missed him last year when he went down. He’s worked hard."
Maybe some outside of the program have forgotten about Epstein after missing 12 games in two seasons after arriving in Champaign from St. Thomas Aquinas High School, a powerhouse in the state of Florida. Offensive coordinator Rod Smith hasn't forgotten and neither has the team.
“I was super excited to get him back, obviously," Rod Smith said. "He’s a guy who has a lot of experience and a lot of season behind him. He’s a good football player. He just fortifies that room even more."
Epstein "feels like a kid again," he said. He practices for a day and sits for a day. On off days, he takes mental reps. He doesn't want to miss any opportunity. He's hoping to get to the point where he practices a few days before he rests.
Epstain said he never considered leaving the program after Corbin's big season last year, establishing himself as one of the team's top offensive weapons. Epstein wants to be a part of the program's turnaround.
“I always have a chip on my shoulder, whether I’ve had the injury or not," Epstein said. "That’s just who I am. I’m a quiet dude. I just love to play ball and I’m about my business."
Corbin said having a healthy Epstein will only make the Illini better.
"To have every piece of the puzzle is great," Corbin said. "It’s kind of heartbreaking when you put a whole puzzle together and one piece is missing. That’s kind of like what it is. He’s a great asset to us. He just makes it harder for defenses."
Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25