CHAMPAIGN - Illinois commit Mike Epstein had talked with Illini coach Lovie Smith several times since Smith was hired in March.
But the Ft. Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas running back's first in-person meeting with Smith really solidified his impressions of the first-year Illini head coach.
"This meeting in person just confirmed to me the person and coach he is," said Epstein, who arrived for an unofficial visit on Thursday and left on Friday. "Love Lovie! He's the most genuine and humble coach I've met."
Epstein, who originally committed to former coach Bill Cubit last August, said he and Smith talked for about an hour.
"We talked about life and how he really liked me as a player," Epstein said. "He likes my natural abilities and told me he can't wait to coach me. He said we're going to change the culture and do big things together."
Epstein also had time to develop deeper relationships with the Illini assistants.
"I talked X's and O's with (offensive coordinator Garrick) McGee and (running backs coach Thad) Ward for some good time," Epstein said. "We watched some film, got a refreshing tour of campus and the facilities, ate lunch with coaches and went up in press box. The whole staff stood out to me. They were the realist and the connection I have with all of them is strong."
Epstein received heavy interest from other FBS programs throughout the Illinois turmoil last year. He received offers from West Virginia and Michigan and visited Michigan during the spring.
In May, Epstein told Illini Inquirer that he was committed to Illinois but that "I'm always going to look into every option that I'm blessed to receive."
Asked how this week's trip impacted his recruitment, Epstein had a strong response.
"I'm committed to the University of Illinois," he said.
While meeting with the Illini staff was important, Epstein also had time to meet with several Illini commits during Thurday's barbecue.
"Hanging out with the other commits was one of the most important (parts of the visit) to me," Epstein said. "Just the connection and the relationship we already have is something real."
Back home in Florida, Epstein now is solely focused on getting back on the football field. He sat out all of last season with a torn ACL -- he talks often with Illini receiver Mikey Dudek, who has torn the same ACL twice -- and is eager to show his skills once again.
"It's been really great," Epstein said. "I put in a lot of hard work and I'm now ready to start camp on Monday."
"Measuring in at 5-foot-11, 185 pounds, Epstein has intriguing size for the position with still one year of high school football on his plate. He's a patient runner that does a good job of getting behind the hogs and reading his blocks, but has speed to burn and can take it in for six points from anywhere on the field as well. Epstein missed all of his junior campaign due to injury, so that's something to monitor going forward. He's not a flashy runner, but certainly gets the job done."