CHAMPAIGN - Kendrick Foster deleted the tweet he sent out on November 30.
It read: “I’ve thought long and hard with my family and decided its (sic) best for myself to finish my football career at a diff D1University.”
Fortunately for Foster, former Illinois coach Bill Cubit quickly deleted those words from his mind too after the transfer market proved unfulfilling for Foster.
“I was just in my emotions, I think,” Foster said. “I’ve been here for three years. It’s been kind of frustrating. I was behind some great backs, Donovonn Young, Josh Ferguson, Dami Ayoola. It was a rough time. I let my emotions get the best of me. That’s all it was about. I’m glad I’m here, and I’m glad I stayed.”
Though Foster has just 78 career rushing yards, the new Illini staff is glad Foster stayed too.
For the second straight spring, the Illini lost Dre Brown -- the No. 2 back last spring and this spring -- to an ACL tear.
“It’s tough,” Foster said. “I feel bad for him. He’s my little brother. For him to go down like that (last year), and for him to come back so strong, I just feel bad for him. Our whole group is praying for him, and we’re in his corner definitely.”
Now, the Illini currently have just two scholarship running backs on the depth chart behind sophomore star Ke'Shawn Vaughn, who led the Illini with 723 rushing yards and six touchdowns as a freshman. Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee wants to run the ball more than Cubit but doesn’t want to wear out Vaughn, his bellcow.
That provides plenty of opportunity for Foster and redshirt freshman Reggie Corbin, who missed last season with a torn labrum. Both backs are undersized: Corbin is listed as 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, while Foster is listed generously as 5-foot-9, 200 pounds -- though he is closer to 5-foot-7.
But both add different qualities. Corbin is built like a traditional scatback, best used in space and the receiving game. Foster is an old-school, thick-legged, pound-it-between-the-tackles rusher.
“I feel like Reggie’s more of an agile (back), and I feel like I’m more downhill,” Foster said. “I’ll make you miss here and there but I’m more downhill between the tackles. We’re more of a thunder and lightning, I would say.”
Said McGee: “They’re doing a really good job. They’re quick. They can move. They’re doing a really good job. I’ve really been impressed with them.”
Though Illinois adds freshman Tre Nation this summer and likely will try to add more running back depth via the transfer market, Foster has never had a bigger and better chance to make a Big Ten impact -- especially with an offensive coordinator who favors the power running attack.
“I think it’s a big opportunity,” Foster said. “We have more runs than we’ve ever had than when we had Cubit as offensive coordinator. The runs are creative, I would say. Coach McGee’s doing a great job and (running back coach Thad) Ward’s doing a great job coaching us on our steps and our technique. We’re taking it by stride. We’re getting better every day in the running game."
After finishing his Peoria Richwoods career fifth in Illinois prep history in rushing yards (6,401), Foster expected plenty of touches with the Illini. But he didn’t get a carry until his third year, three carries in a season-opening rout of Kent State last season.
He didn’t touch the ball again until eight games later. But Foster made the most of his opportunities. He ran for an 18-yard touchdown in his lone carry in a blowout win at Purdue and then ran for a career-high 56 yards on 11 carries in a loss two weeks later at Minnesota.
Now -- despite a fall flirtation with leaving Illinois due to lack of opportunity -- opportunity has never knocked louder for Foster.
“Sometimes it doesn’t work like (you want),” Foster said. “You still got to work for it. Me being a redshirt junior, there’s no easy way out. You got to still work every day. With a new offense, you have to work every night as well.
“I was pretty happy I stayed. It didn’t matter whether Dre got hurt or not. This group, we’re getting closer, like the last groups like when I came in as a freshman. I’m just trying to lead this group. Being here for three years, I’m just trying to let them know what not to do and what to do during game situations and how to stay positive in certain situations.”