The Illini have already established a strong stable of running backs on the roster, but the injuries that happened in 2015 are a stark reminder of how quickly a third or fourth-string running back can become a starter. Combine that with the graduation of do-it-all back Josh Ferguson and the transfer of reserve Kendrick Foster, and it's no surprise that Illinois will be reloading quite a bit at the running back position this offseason.
In the spring, Dre Brown seemed to have the 2nd string running back position locked up even before eventual starter Ke'Shawn Vaughn stepped on campus, but an ACL tear in the spring kept Brown on the sidelines all summer and fall. During the summer, Josh Ferguson "look-alike" Reggie Corbin, a freshman from Gonzaga Prep in Washington D.C., was also sidelined with a shoulder injury that would keep him out the entire season as well.
Then, just a few games into the 2015 season, Josh Ferguson was sidelined with a shoulder sprain, leaving the depth chart at 1. Vaughn, 2. Enyenihi, 3. Foster, and 4. walk-on Cam Tucker. In the middle of the season, even Enyenihi fell victim to the injury bug, sitting a game or two with a sprained knee of his own.
Just like at wide receiver, the running back position, which was once one of the deepest on the team, was decimated due to injuries, and further proved the value of quality depth at the position. So with the roster turnover that is taking place between 2015 and 2016, the Illini don't want to repeat history and hope to be ready should the same sort of injuries take place again this year.
Currently, the 2016 class contains two running back commitments: O'Fallon (IL) 4-star running back Kentrail Moran and Delray Beach (FL) American Heritage RB Devin Singletary. If for some reason, Illinois were to lose the commitment of Moran, who reiterated to me on Wednesday night that his commitment was solid, here are a few guys who all led their respective teams to state championships and are at the forefront of the hunt for an additional back if space is available:
Sam Brodner - Glenbard West (IL)
Fresh off of a 7A state title and a recognition as the Gatorade Player of the Year in the state of Illinois, Brodner recently decommitted from Vanderbilt. A powerful runner who is difficult to bring down, Brodner has deceptively good speed and runs with much of the same authority as former Stanford running back Toby Gerhardt.
Brodner was productive at one of the most competitive and physical levels of prep football in Illinois and produced at a stellar rate on the field. With close to 2600 yards on the season, Brodner was the focal point of the Hilltoppers' offense this year, but that (or opposing teams, for that matter) didn't stop him from putting up big numbers.
The 5'11", 215 pound workhorse was a standout on offense, but has proven in the past that he's a viable defender as well. He surprisingly has good instincts at linebacker and even played safety during the spring 7-on-7 season for Midwest BOOM, where he recorded a handful of acrobatic interceptions and surprised many with his defensive prowess.
Even if Brodner never played a snap at running back for Illinois, his overall football ability and athleticism make him a fitting candidate to man the STAR OLB position should Illinois maintain that scheme. He's physical, gets off of blocks well, and isn't afraid of contact. Lately, the Illini have leaned more toward the shifty backs who are able to catch out of the backfield, but there's something to be said for a back like Brodner who can run around, run through, and run away from defenders.
He liked the Illini a lot when he went to make his decision the first time around, but opted for Vanderbilt when Illinois backed off. The Illini now have a second chance to land one of the most talented players in the home state. Will they learn from the first time around or will they look to go another route?
Following his decommitment, both Syracuse and Iowa State have been heavily involved (go figure), so if Illinois wants to land the producitve in-state back, they will likely have to make him a priority and prove to him that he's their guy.
Darius Anderson - George Ranch (TX)
Anderson is fresh off of leading his George Ranch team to the Class 5 - Division I state championship at NRG Stadium in Houston, TX last Friday. Had I known the Illini would be involved at the time, I would have checked him out in person (I was actually in Houston at the time). But he got all the talk on the news that evening. His 246 yards yards propelled George Ranch to a lopsided 56-0 victory over Mansfield (TX) Lake Ridge.
Many consider Texas High School Football (save maybe Florida and California) to be the premier proving ground for prep prospects in the entire country. And on one of the biggest stages, Anderson stole the spotlight.
Anderson is a slippery and quick back who squeezes through his gaps well. He doesn't have the sustained breakaway speed to leave defenders in his dust, but is crafty with his cutbacks and freezes defenders with his cuts. He's most dangerous when he's able to get to the second level and go one-on-one with safeties in matchups where he usually wins.
One area where Anderson will need to further prove himself is between-the-tackles running. He often looks to break runs outside, which at the high school level is fine. But when defenders at the collegiate level are able to run stride-for-stride with him on the perimeter, he will need to prove his ability to lower his pads and deliver the boom.
It's easy to see why Missouri liked him, as he resembled both their No. 1 (Russell Hansbrough) and No. 2 (Ish Witter) running backs. But Missouri struggled at times to pound the ball, and lacked the big back with which they could do so, especially with Chase Abbington buried at 4th on their depth chart.
Anderson is a talented back who brings a lot of the same skills that Josh Ferguson did and has shined on the big stage of high school football, but my main concern with him is his ability to get the tough yards, and that's where I think Brodner, as well as Tre Nation, who is the next back we'll look at, have an edge on him.
Tre Nation - Leeds (AL)
Nation is a fluid runner who shows great balance and vision and always keeps his shoulder pads squared up when running downhill. He does lack the breakaway speed to run away from linebackers or defensive backs, but is physical and exhibits good body control.
Nation gets the "nasty" yards for Leeds, as he showed in the 5A state championship game in Alabama, as he scored a record 5 touchdowns (from 1, 4, 9, 6, and 12 yards out). Nation, at 5'10", 216 pounds, is built similarly to Brodner, but lacks the speed Brodner has, recording a certified 40-yard dash in the upper 4.8's.
He's a capable pass catcher in the screen game, who is able to evaluate his gaps well in the running game. Throughoug his career, Nation has been one of the most productive backs in the south, amassing 5,681 yards and 73 touchdowns on the ground even prior to his senior season. His senior year, he added another 1,890 yards and 21 touchdowns to bring his career totals to 7,571 yards and 94 touchdowns.
Nation may not be flashy, but he has traditionally been productive. He also hails from a prep program that has produced its fair share of Division 1 talents such as Jonathan Rose, who landed at Auburn.
The Illini's main competition for Nation at the moment are Cincinnati and Louisville, who both have offered. Nation would fit the mold more of senior Henry Enyenihi and provide a balance as a power back.
Personally, if I had to choose one of the three backs above, I would pick Sam Brodner for a few reasons. Not only is he an in-state product, but he's the Gatorade Player of the Year. Illinois' top-rated in-state commit right now other than Kentrail Moran is DE Josh Black. The Illini have an opportunity to not only land a highly-regarded player at a school at which they have traditionally struggled to recruit, but also a player who would bring a hard-nosed Big Ten skill set with him.
Illinois reportedly has already arranged a visit for Darius Anderson. Anderson is a great back in his own right and fills the shoes of Josh Ferguson, one of Illinois' most productive offensive players of all time, quite well. Should he make it to campus and enjoy his time, I could see him pulling the trigger.
But to me this is more than just a talent thing. The perception that comes along with landing a guy like Sam Brodner goes a long way. He's a top in-state guy. Did I mention he was the GATORADE PLAYER OF THE YEAR in Illinois over Josh King (Michigan State commitment), Julian Love (a Notre Dame commitment), Mike Panasiuk (a Michigan State commitment), and several other talented players who are committed to power-five schools.
Personally, I felt that Illinois made a mistake not taking Brodner the first time around, and, no slight to the other two backs on this list, I'll feel like they made an even bigger mistake if they had a second chance and don't make him a priority this time around.