CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Mike Epstein may be on the Illinois spring football roster but Illini head coach Bret Bielema confirmed Wednesday he’s not currently on campus with the football program and his status for the upcoming 2021 season is in some doubt.
In his Zoom media conference more than 24 hours after the first spring practice session, Bielema confirmed to local and statewide media that fourth-year junior tailback is in his home state of Florida taking care of spring semester academic requirements virtually but still has an open invitation to join the Illini program for summer workouts starting in June.
“I like Mike Epstein as much as any player I’ve never met,” Bielema joked Wednesday. “I've had several conversations with Mike. Mike's back in Florida taking classes.”
Bielema said he’s been in contact with Epstein via phone calls and has a good relationship with Epstein’s high school program, St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., along with its head coach Roger Harriot.
"It's just not my position to comment on it at all, so (I) put it in his hands on what he wants to do. I've had several conversations with Mike. Mike's back in Florida taking classes," Bielema said. "Just trying to steer him as best as possible. Whether or not he returns in the fall is strictly in his hands. I've invited him back and told him we'd love to have him be a part of the team.”
Epstein has suffered significant injuries in each of his first three seasons and has missed 19 games. After missing the last five games of the 2018 season, Epstein found his way near the top of the Illini depth chart for the 2019 opener against Akron. After just eight carries for 45 yards in that season opener, Epstein suffered a season-ending knee injury and was once again forced to restart rehabilitation again.
Last season, Epstein was an All-Big Ten Conference honorable mention selection by the media and the league’s coaches after getting three starts in seven games. In 69 carries, Epstein totaled 367 rush yards and four touchdowns in 2020 allowing him to currently be No. 36 on Illinois’ all-time rushing list with 1,169 career yards.
Epstein is on track to earn his undergraduate degree after this spring semester, which would conclude his fourth year at Illinois, and therefore be eligible to be an immediately impactful graduate transfer at another Football Bowl Subdivision school.
Bielema also added linebacker Jake Hansen, who announced on March 1 his intention to return to Illinois for a sixth season of college football after receiving an eligibility waiver from the NCAA Eligibility Center, just arrived back on the Illinois campus last week but wouldn’t be cleared to return to physical drill work this spring.
"We weren't even counting on him being in spring ball, so you won't see Jake throughout the spring," Bielema said. "We didn't obviously find out he was coming back through the NCAA waiver until shortly before spring ball and he didn't get to campus until last week. Jake's here. He looks great."
Hansen led Illinois during the 2020 season in tackles (68), tackles for loss (10), interceptions (two), and forced fumbles (two). Hansen was named a Second Team All-Big Ten linebacker selection by the media and a Third Team pick by the league’s coaches.
NOTES FROM AVAILABILITY WINDOW OF ILLINI’S 2ND SPRING PRACTICE
DISCLAIMER: This was the first 15-minute session viewed live by Illini Now/Sports Illustrated and we intend to be a participant for Saturday’s window as that will be the first day for the Illini in full pads.
Brandon Peters was the first participant in every quarterback positional drill and was essentially the guinea pig/player instructor to explain every drill created by Illinois offensive coordinator Tony Petersen. The second in line was redshirt freshman Isiah Williams and third in line was redshirt freshman Gregory “Deuce” Spann. Matt Robinson and Coran Taylor got sporadic reps during the 15-minute availability window but it certainly wasn’t as much as the top three signal callers mentioned.
The first tight end in drills and eventually when they began working with the quarterbacks was junior Daniel Barker as he got passes from Peters. Second in line for the tight end was Luke Ford and Northern Illinois transfer Mike Cerniglia Jr., was next in line with redshirt freshman Tip Reiman.
The linebackers working with positional coach Andy Buh were North Carolina State transfer Calvin Hart Jr., redshirt freshman Ryan Meed, senior Michael Marchese, junior Sean Coghlan, senior Marc Mondesir, freshman Dylan Rosiek and redshirt freshman Isaac Darkangelo, who turns 21 years old on April 26. It should be noted returning linebackers Tarique Barnes, Khalan Tolson and Shammond Cooper are out this spring after having offseason surgery this winter. It also appears the converted defensive lineman, who will be stand-up pass rushers in Illinois’ odd-man front defense this coming fall (Owen Carney Jr., Isaiah Gay, Seth Coleman and Ezekiel Holmes) were working with assistant coach Kevin Kane.
The outside wide receivers group was led by Missouri transfer Khmari Thompson, Miami (Fla.) transfer Brian Hightower and that returning duo was followed by sophomore Dalevon Campbell, redshirt freshman walk-on Owen Hickey, walk-on John Bickel and converted kicker Caleb Griffin.
The inside slot wide receivers group was led by junior Donny Navarro, sophomore Carlos Sandy, redshirt freshman James Frenchie Jr., walk-on Ty Lindenman and redshirt freshman Kyron Cumby.
The offensive lineman aren’t in pads so any assessment has to be vague and rather useless at this point. However, Bielema mentioned Wednesday how returning senior Vederian Lowe, who is listed at 6-foot-6 and 320 pounds, “totally changed his body type” and with the players simply in just helmets, jerseys and shorts Thursday, Lowe looked physically leaner despite being at his same listed weight from the fall.