In two weeks, when Illinois running back Kendrick Foster thinks back on his college career, it will elicit a wide range of emotions: from utter heartbreak and frustration, to the elation of his long-anticipated breakout.
Since arriving on the Champaign-Urbana campus in 2013, Foster has had three head coaches and five position coaches. After a redshirt year, he struggled to get even a whiff of playing time during his first two seasons, had a breakout year in 2016, then suddenly was buried on the depth chart in 2017.
Foster’s turbulent career with the Illini is nearly at a close. The fifth-year senior tailback will play his penultimate college football game when Illinois travels to Ohio Stadium to take on the Buckeyes on Saturday.
“These past (five) years have been a roller coaster of emotions for sure,” Foster said. “From winning to losing, and to times not starting. The experience, it just helped me grow as a man, mature, and learn life lessons throughout the circumstances I’ve been through.”
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Foster presumably will be the starting tailback against the Buckeyes. He came into the season atop the depth chart after finishing with 720 yards on 126 carries (5.7-yard average) and seven touchdowns as a junior, earning him a spot on the watch list for the Doak Walker Award, given to the best tailback in college football.
“It made it hard to make an impression on somebody (because) they’d end up leaving,” Foster said of the numerous coaching changes during his career. “That was a tough thing for me. But once I got my shot, I took full advantage of it.”
But the momentum didn’t last, with freshmen Mike Epstein and Ra’Von Bonner quickly surpassing Foster on the depth chart this season. After logging 15 yards on eight attempts in the season-opener at Ball State, Foster recorded only five carries over the Illini’s next six games, including three games without any offensive statistics.
“It was very frustrating,” Foster said. “I take pride in my work and definitely got better in the offseason. I never in a million years thought this would happen to me.”
It would have been easy for Foster to pout or throw in the towel after being limited in his senior season. Instead, he put his ego aside and did whatever he could to help the team and get back on the field, something his coaches applauded.
“I really appreciate Kendrick in the way that he handles his business,” offensive coordinator Garrick McGee told the Peoria Journal-Star. “At the time when he wasn’t playing and Mike and Ra’Von were playing, instead of Kendrick being immature and going to complain to other people, Kendrick would come right in my office and sit and have deep conversations about things.”
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Foster now has re-emerged as Illinois’ feature back, after some bad luck for Illinois’ backfield. Epstein is out for the season because of a foot injury and Bonner has been dealing with a concussion suffered against Minnesota on Oct. 21.
In the past three games, Foster has averages of 18 carries and 74 yards against Wisconsin, Purdue and Indiana. He had 15 carries for 66 yards and a touchdown against the Badgers, who have the No. 1 run defense in the nation.
“I’m running with a chip on my shoulder,” Foster said. “It was an opportunity I wasn’t going to waste. Definitely when I first got out there I was a little rusty … (but) I feel like I’m back in my world now.”
Foster, despite his rocky tenure in Champaign, still keeps a positive outlook. He plans on training for the NFL draft once the season is over and hopes to be invited to the 2018 NFL combine.
“I don’t have any questions that I won’t make it,” Foster said. “I don’t have any doubts.”
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