Plenty of talk this season for Ft. Lauderdale (FL) powerhouse prep program St. Thomas Aquinas has centered around Florida QB commit Jake Allen and big-time WR Trevon Grimes, but one of the unsung contributors for the team is running back Mike Epstein.
The starting running back for one of the top high school programs in the country, Epstein often takes a back seat to the highest-rated recruits on his team when it comes to national recognition, but after seeing Epstein run Friday night against a Bishop Gorman team with a loaded defense, I have a new appreciation for the toughness and vision he brings to the table.
Epstein scored Aquinas' final touchdown of the night in a triple overtime loss to Gorman, but the loss definitely stung after the game.
"Respect.. both ways," Epstein said. "It was a hell of a game. Whenever I get the ball in my hands, I want to run my hardest and leave it all out there."
What also stung just as much was the loss of key teammate Trevon Grimes early in the second half. Grimes announced Monday on twitter that he had injured his ACL on a play in the endzone.
Epstein, who missed his entire junior season with a torn ACL, knew exactly how teammate Trevon Grimes felt when he went down with an ACL injury.
Epstein told SFHS Sports, "I reached out to Trevon, sent him some motivational things. He's our brother, and we're going to keep fighting for him."
Epstein has split carries this year with Kyshaun Bryan, a South Carolina commit. Epstein feels it has helped him run more aggressively knowing he has another quality back in the backfield with him.
"We have two of the best backs, so when we're in there, we're fresh, we're healthy," Epstein said. "We're never tired. We have the potential to to take it to the house at any time. That's why we're so dangerous."
Epstein considered taking his official visit to Illinois early this season, but now that his bye week has come and gone, he is most likely to take it sometime after his season has concluded.
"I might take my official visit after the season since my bye week passed," he said. "I'm just wanting to keep building that relationship with Lovie and the coaches."
Despite the coaching change, Epstein has reaffirmed his commitment, but still is keeping an eye on how his future team is doing this year.
"I just want to see them compete," he said. "I hope tomorrow (against Nebraska) they compete big and try to get that win."
Epstein and his fellow 2017 recruiting classmates are all part of Lovie Smith's inaugural class at Illinois. Epstein believes that they have the potential to be an impact class and set the tone for the program moving forward.
"That's what it is. We're going to be the game-changing class," Epstein said. "It's Lovie's first one. He knows what he wants. For a coach to have the guys he wants and recruit his own players is special. He didn't really recruit everyone there, but to have a relationship with the players and understand their strengths is big."
A big reason Epstein has stuck with the Illini is the intentionality and genuine interest Lovie Smith has shown him since taking the job.
"From day one, he reached out from the beginning, and I respect that," he said. "I talk to him and all the coaches."