NOTEBOOK: Foster, Turner emerge for Illini

Once buried on depth chart, RB Kendrick Foster gives boost to struggling Illini offense, as does WR Malik Turner

CHAMPAIGN - Kendrick Foster played so little during the first 35 games of his college career that he wasn’t among one of the 67 Illini players to have a player profile in this week’s game notes produced by the school's sports information department.

Players who did have profiles -- which include biographical notes and statistics -- included backup linemen, a receiver who has played just one game (and has no receptions) this season and players who won’t play this season due to injury.

Foster surely will have a game-note profile next week after rushing for a career-high 56 yards on 11 carries in the Illini’s 32-23 loss at Minnesota.

“It felt good," Foster said. "It’s my redshirt sophomore year. It’s been three years. It feels good. It’s like a big weight off my shoulders. ...I’m just thankful.”

Foster had been buried on the Illinois running back depth chart for his entire career -- he entered the game with just four career carries for 22 yards (all this season) -- and even fell behind senior walk-on Cameron Tucker on the depth chart.

Until this week.

With freshman Ke’Shawn Vaughn out after suffering a concussion last week against Ohio State and Henry Enyenihi limited as he continues to recover a knee sprain, Cubit gave Foster increased reps.

“Coach pulled me aside and said he was going to trust me and give me the opportunity,” Foster said. “Honestly, I didn’t think I was going to get that many."

Foster aided an Illini rushing attack that totaled 154 yards, the second-hgihest rushing output of the season.

“He’s strong,” said senior Josh Ferguson, who led the Illini with 105 rushing yards. “He’s got great vision, and he’s low to the ground. He’s hard to get down.”

Why hadn’t Foster -- listed as a generous 5-foot-9 -- played earlier? Well, he didn’t produce much in practice and lacks the speed to be a game-breaking back. But he has strong legs, which he showed Saturday, churning positive yards on all but one of his 11 carries.

"After that first hit, that’s when the nerves go away," Foster said. "If you’re not nervous, then you shouldn’t play this game.”

Foster may not get many more opportunities -- Vaughn may return against Northwestern and injured freshmen Dre Brown and Reggie Corbin have higher ceilings for the future -- but he made the most of his biggest opportunity.

“Every time a guy goes in, you expect him to be good; you really do,” Cubit said. “Did (Foster) play better probably than a lot of people thought? Yes. I thought he did a nice job. That’s another example of a kid who could’ve just bagged it. He didn’t.”

 

Turner ‘continues to get better’

Few Illini players have as high of a ceiling as Malik Turner. That’s why his sophomore season has been so frustrating at times.

Illini coaches have called the 6-foot-3, 205-pound sophomore one of the top athletes on the team, and he’s one of the team’s most physical players, serving well as a blocker.

But his inconsistency -- dropped passes, struggles to get open against press coverage and overall lack of confidence -- has been maddening at times.

Which is why the Illini were happy to see Turner make big plays -- including an 18-yard catch in which he threw aside a defensive back, a 28-yard catch in which he spun away from a defensive back and a 13-yard touchdown catch -- in Saturday’s loss.

“They’ve been hammering me about getting up the field after the catch,” said Turner, who finished with career highs in catches (11) and yards (126).

Turner had just two catches for 15 yards through the first three games but has 15 catches for 187 yards over his last two games to up his season totals (36 catches, 464 yards, three touchdowns) -- a good sign for the future, along with the incremental improvement of Desmond Cain (six catches, 42 yards on Saturday).

“Malik continues to get better every week,” said Illinois junior quarterback Wes Lunt, who threw for 279 yards and two touchdowns. “Today, I really trusted him. I went to him a lot. He’s a receiver who continues to get better. Next year, he’s probably going to be our go-to guy, so I’m just getting him more catches and more experience.”

 

QUICK HITS

  • Illini senior running back Josh Ferguson (105 rushing yards) passed three long-time NFL players -- Howard Griffith (2,485), Rashard Mendenhall (2,539) and Pierre Thomas (2,545) -- on the Illinois career rushing yards list with his third 100-yard rushing game of the season and ninth of his career. Ferguson (2,546 yards) is now eighth on the career list with Juice Williams (2,557 yards) and Mikel LeShoure (2,557 yards) likely to be passed next. Rocky Harvey (2,711 yards) is fifth all-time.
  • Illini senior linebacker Mason Monheim tied a season-high with 12 tackles and had a season-high 2.0 tackles for loss. 
  • Illini senior safety Clayton Fejedelem (nine tackles) had his streak of 10-plus tackle games stopped at four. He leads the Big Ten with 124 tackles on the season.
  • Illini senior receiver Geronimo Allison was held to three catches for 46 yards. Through seven games, Allison led the Big Ten with 49 catches and 700 yards. But he has just 12 catches for 128 yards and no touchdowns over the past four games.
  • Illinois kicker Taylor Zalewski was a perfect 3-for-3 on field goals on Saturday, making attempts from 23, 44 and 36 yards. Zalewski (16-for-23 this season) has made 10 of his last 12 field goal attempts.
  • The Illini did not register a sack on Saturday, the third time that's happened this season and the first time during Big Ten play.

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