Illini Football Spring Scout: Running backs

With Dre Brown's future uncertain, Illini looking to add a couple difference-makers in Class of 2017

IlliniInquirer publisher Jeremy Werner is breaking down each Illini football position group, what they're looking to add at each position in the Class of 2017 and their top targets.

First up was the quarterbacks.

Now, let's look at the running backs.

What Illini have on roster

Last April, this appeared to be a positional strength for years to come. Versatile star Josh Ferguson was entering his senior season. Four-star freshman Dre Brown had won the No. 2 job as an early enrollee. Four-star prospect Ke'Shawn Vaughn was on his way, and four-star O'Fallon running back Kentrail Moran had just committed. Running Back U?

Since then, Brown has suffered torn ACLs to each knee and his future is cloudy. Meanwhile, Moran failed to make the grades and is still looking for a home. After Moran earned an improved ACT score, Tennessee is a possibility. Illinois talked with him recently but likely will not pursue him due to remaining academic concerns. And of course, Ferguson has graduated and signed an undrafted free agent deal with the Colts.

The good news is the Illini seem to have a top-notch feature back at least for the next two seasons.

Vaughn lived up to his four-star billing as a freshman, sharing the load with Ferguson and leading the Illini with 723 rushing yards (4.6 yards per carry) and six touchdowns. He's a decisive one-cut runner with plus strength, speed and vision. Shouldering the load in 2016, he should put up big numbers. New Illini offensive coordinator Garrick McGee will ride his star running back but is leery of riding him too much. But what does he have behind him on the depth chart?

Redshirt freshman Reggie Corbin is the prototypical scatback. He's quick and agile in space and a plus receiver. But Corbin, who sat out last season after suffering a torn labrum in August, is undersized and is more of a complementary back than a feature back.

Junior Kendrick Foster is like Corbin in that he's a complementary back but is the opposite style-wise. Foster is a power, in-between-the-tackles runner who won't make many plays in space or run away from defenders.

Alabama freshman Tre Nation arrives this summer. Like Foster, Nation put up huge numbers in high school. Like Foster, he is a strong in-between-the-tackles runner with good vision but lacks breakaway speed. He gives the Illini a good short-yardage back though.

None of the backups look like future feature backs.The Illini will look to bring in a transfer to add depth to the 2016 group. But they need more long-term answers.

What Illini want in 2017

The Illini want to add two running backs in the Class of 2017. In the past, McGee has shown a desire for bigger, bellcow backs.

He recruited Jordan Howard to UAB. Howard then transferred to Indiana, where he was a star, before getting drafted in the fifth round of the NFL Draft last weekend by the Chicago Bears. He recruited two  Class of 2016 running backs to Louisville who were both 6-foot or taller and 210 pounds or bigger. He recruited another 2015 running back who was 6-foot-1, 220 pounds.

Illinois will look for another big, NFL-sized back to help their power run game. Expect more names to emerge soon, though the Illini are already prioritizing one player (spotlighted later).

But the Illini also need a playmaker. They currently have one committed: St. Thomas Aquinas running back Mike Epstein.

Yes, Epstein is still a commit. That's what he told on Tuesday.

"I'm committed to Illinois," Epstein said. "But I'm always going to look into every option that I'm blessed to receive."

Epstein, who committed to previous Illini head coach Bill Cubit, has received offers from Michigan, West Virginia and Syracuse. He recently visited Ann Arbor and head coach Jim Harbaugh.

But the new Illini staff also has made an impression.

Lovie Smith reached out to Epstein within his first couple days on the job and has been in almost constant contact with Smith, McGee and running backs coach Thad Ward.

"I really like them a lot," Epstein said. "They reached out from the jump, and I respect that. They are always are in contact with me. A lot. They have great positive things to say to me. They really do want to coach me in college, and they show me the want and the need factors. They write me all the time. They show the love."

Ward and Illini secondary coach Paul Williams visited Epstein at spring practice on Tuesday. Epstein is still working his way back from a torn ACL suffered last year. Like Illini star receiver Mike Dudek, Epstein's surgery was performed by Dr. James Andrews.

Epstein said he is feeling "100 percent back." The Illini are selling him that he should still be 100 percent Illini.

"They keep telling me they need a player like me, a home-run hitter and an every-down back," Epstein said. "They think I can make an early impact."

Possible targets

The Illini are hot after Maleek Williams. The 6-foot, 200-pound Florida native has the mix of size, burst, vision and quick-cut ability the Illini want in their backfield. The Illini  have made him a priority and assistant Thad Ward will visit him next week. Williams also has offers from Cincinnati, Colorado, Kentucky, NC State, North Carolina and South Florida. He told this week, "Definitely after spring, I'm definitely going to (visit) Illinois. Without a doubt. That's the number one spot I have to go to. Then I'm going to go to North Carolina and Arkansas probably."

The Tennessee native was the first recruit Lovie Smith called on FaceTime to start the spring evaluation period. Hayden has some big offers -- Tennessee, Arkansas, South Carolina, Arkansas, Louisville, Michigan, Mississippi State, Missouri, Virginia and Vanderbilt.-- so this will be a tough get. But the Illini have a connection. Smith was an assistant on the Volunteers staff when Hayden's father,  Aaron, played at Tennessee in the early 1990s.

Kelly-Martin committed to Iowa last month. Two weeks later, Iowa received a commitment from top-100 prospect and four-star running back Eno Benjamin. Kelly-Martin seems solid to Iowa, but Illinois likely will monitor the situation for the in-state back.

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