Position Primer: Illini Running Backs

Illini Inquirer breaks down the 2016 Illini running back depth chart and answers burning questions about the position

Illini Inquirer is breaking down one Illini football position group per day, leading up to the start of  Illinois training camp on Thursday, Aug. 4.

July 27 - Illini quarterbacks

Today - Illini running backs

The depth chart


Year: Sophomore

Stats: Last season -- 157 carries, 723 rushing yards, six TDs; 16 receptions, 119 yards

Analysis: Ke'Shawn Vaughn looked every bit of a four-star prospect during his freshman campaign, stepping up as a great complement to go-to guy Josh Ferguson last season. With Ferguson now with the Indianapolis Colts, Vaughn takes over as a Big Ten bell-cow back -- a job for which he received training when Ferguson missed most of the first four conference games. Vaughn is good in most areas of the game. He has good speed, good power, good change of direction, solid skills in the receiving and blocking game. Ironically, he struggled last season in the one elite skill he had as a prospect: vision. Still, Vaughn has the ability to be an NFL prospect and one of the better backs in the Big Ten. BTN analyst Howard Griffith told Illini Inquirer that "there may only be one or two places he couldn't start in the Big Ten right now." Lovie Smith has high expectations for Vaughn. Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee plans on featuring Vaughn heavily (20-30 carries per game). Illinois hasn't had a 1,000-yard rusher since Mikel LeShoure ran for a program-record 1,697 yards in 2010. If he stays healthy, Vaughn should end that drought.


Year: Redshirt freshman

Stats: No games played

Analysis: Reggie Corbin missed all of last season with a torn labrum suffered during training camp. It  was one of the more overlooked 2016 injuries for the Illini. Corbin is built in the mold of Ferguson: a smaller, scatback who thrives in space and the receiving game. Corbin hasn't proven to have Ferguson's top-end speed, but he's a nice tool in the toolbox and a nice complement to the between-the-tackles backups behind him on the depth chart. Corbin is small (5-10, 185 pounds) but he has nice agility and soft hands and should be valuable to Lunt as a check-down target, possibly in two-back setups with Vaughn. Illinois needs some playmakers. Corbin is one of the newcomers who has some potential to step up as one.


Year: Redshirt junior

Stats: 15 career carries, 78 career rushing yards, one touchdown

Analysis: Following a sophomore season where he finally earned some carries, Kendrick Foster had decided to transfer -- before he had any transfer options. Illinois coach Bill Cubit welcomed Foster back this winter, and the Illini are now glad to have him following another season-ending injury to likely No. 2 running back Dre Brown. Foster is not a burner, but he's a churner. The short back has powerful legs and a hard-headed mindset. He showed his between-the-tackles, tough-nosed ability when he ran for a career-high 56 yards on a career-high 11 carries at Minnesota late last season. He's limited and likely won't be a gamebreaker, but the Illini hope Foster can get tough yards and spell Vaughn for a handful of carries per game.


Year: Freshman

Analysis: Like Foster, freshman Tre Nation put up monstrous numbers as a prep running back -- 7,604 career rushing yards and 120 rushing touchdowns -- as the workhorse of back-to-back state champion teams at Leeds High School in Alabama. Like Foster, he lacks the explosion and top-end speed that most teams look for in their top running back, but he is tough in between the tackles and can produce with a solid offensive line in front of him.


Year: Redshirt junior

Stats: Played 11 games at H-Back last season; four receptions for four yards; 13 tackles on special teams

Analysis: Nate Echard moved from linebacker to H-Back last year, where he served primarily as a blocker. The hard-nosed Echard received a decent amount of playing time due to the Illini's rash of injuries to their tight ends. The Illini want to use a superback, or fullback/H-back, in their new offense, and Echard best fits the role.


Year: Redshirt sophomore

Stats: No games played at running back

Analysis: Wisconsin native Austin Roberts struggled to find playing time as a linebacker during his first two seasons at Illinois and has moved over to running back. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound redshirt sophomore played tight end in high school and likely will work in as a superback with Echard.



Year: Redshirt freshman

Stats: No games played; sat out last season with torn ACL

Analysis: Dre Brown is such a great complement to Vaughn, and that's why it's such a bummer that Brown enters a second straight fall camp recovering from a torn ACL (the opposite ACL from last year). Vaughn is a quick-footed, tough, one-cut-and-go runner who excels most between the tackles. Brown is a long strider who -- in his limited spring practice time each of the last two seasons -- looks most dangerous in space. His game reminds me of former Bears running back Matt Forte, more of a finesse guy than a pounder. He looked really comfortable catching the ball out of the backfield. Two-back sets with he and Vaughn looked really appealing. Again, it's such a bummer that Brown likely lost another season to injury. For one, the DeKalb native so badly wants to play for the state school. Second, he was one of the offense's better playmakers. Without him, Illinois is dangerously thin at tailback.

Burning questions

1. How many touches will Ke'Shawn Vaughn get?

Illinois has two great talents in its offensive backfield. The problem is that Wes Lunt and Ke'Shawn Vaughn are markedly better than their backups. If Lunt gets hurt, the Illini are in real trouble. If Vaughn goes down, the Illini are in real trouble. The Illini will try to protect Lunt by getting rid of the ball quickly and running the football. But you can't hide running backs from hits, especially bell-cow backs. Remember when Paul Petrino used to say "Feed the studs"? Well, Vaughn is that stud. Garrick McGee will need to find the happy medium between under- and over-working his workhorse back. The Illini need Vaughn healthy, but they also need him to produce -- a lot. It wouldn't be a shock to see him receive a workload similar to Northwestern running back Justin Jackson, who has 557 carries during his first two seasons with the Wildcats.

Jeremy Werner

2. Can the backups carve out complementary roles?

Vaughn will need to take a series or two off a game, so the Illini need to be able to rely on the backups for contributions. Corbin could provide some lightning, while Foster and Nation could provide some thunder. Corbin also could play in the backfield with any of the other backs and motion out to the slot. Fifty-plus overall touches, including double-digit receptions, would be a good goal for the shifty redshirt freshman. Foster had a strong spring. Despite a lack of speed, he is a pretty good blocker and is able to catch it out of the backfield. Five carries per game for Foster at a 4.0+ yard per carry clip would be a solid season.

3. Can Illini land the next workhorse?

Vaughn is just a sophomore, but there isn't a guarantee that Illinois will get three more years of production out of him. A former Illini staffer told me last year that Vaughn was an early-entree candidate. He still has a lot to prove, but Vaughn has NFL talent. And running backs tend to leave for the NFL as quickly as they can so they can capitalize on their earning power before the pounding takes its toll. Regardless, Illinois needs to recruit difference-making tailbacks in the Class of 2017 because none of Vaughn's backups seem to have a No. 1 back kind of ceiling (kind of like when Daniel Dufrene and Troy Pollard were the main backs in 2008). Holding onto Mike Epstein would be a great start. He has solid size and really good speed. But McGee prefers big, physical backs -- preferably ones with good speed too -- and the Illini are still searching for that guy. Arkansas commit Maleek Williams was their main target for the spring and summer. After the Razorbacks took a commitment from fellow Illini target Chase Hayden, expect the Illini to have an open line of communication with Williams -- and possibly Hayden too. The Illini also are pursuing Texas running back Calvin Tyler, Floridians Malik Davis and Kywan Smith and Alabamans Terence DunlapJamal Hourel and Alex Thomason,

photo courtesy Sun-Sentinel

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