Breakout Candidate: Illini RB Kendrick Foster

Kendrick Foster, who almost left Illinois last fall, has looked like a different running back since Lovie Smith arrived

CHAMPAIGN - After spring practice wrapped up, Lovie Smith gave Kendrick Foster a visual that changed the Illinois running back's mindset, leading the bulky Foster to change his body.

"He gave me the example of holding 10 pound dumbbells in my hand and trying to cut," Foster said. "That's heavy on my joints and heavy just to explode out of my holes. My main focus was to just get back to where I was at in high school of my explosiveness."

Foster transformed his diet.

"I stopped eating fast food and started eating healthy and not drinking soda and stopped eating after 10 o'clock," Foster said.

That transformed his body. -- the No. 5 career rushing yardage leader in Illinois prep history after totaling 6,401 yards at Peoria Richwoods -- has shed 10 pounds (from 205 pounds to 195 pounds) from his 5-foot-8 frame and dropped from 16 percent body fat to 11 percent body fat.

That transformed his game.

"I feel so much better," said Foster, who has a goal to reach nine percent body fat during the season. "I just feel better, more comfortable. I feel healthier."

The bulkier version of Foster was a tough inside-the-tackles runner who struggled to find the field during his first three seasons, totaling 78 yards on 15 carries last season. During fall training camp, a trim but still powerful Foster looks like a different player. He's more nimble and more explosive.

"He's gotten quicker, man," Illinois running backs coach Thad Ward said. "He's quick now. He has a knack for what's going on in the run game. I will say this because everybody asks me about it. He's so short you can't see him. And the next thing you know, he squirts out of there."

Foster said the weight loss hasn't effected his strength in the weight room -- "I'm the strongest I've ever been," said Foster, who power-cleans 315 pounds -- and credits new strength and conditioning coach Joey Boese for the transformation.

"It's a complete change from the spring through the summer," Ward said. "Everything started with attitude. He's done a great job working with Coach Boese this summer changing his body completely. He trained himself to compete for a job. He's come out and done really well, man. He's been really good in meetings. He's always been a guy it's important to, so he'll always be up here late at night watching film studying the game. I think we're just seeing the maturation of his growth." Following a season in which he received his first career carries, Foster announced in late November that he had decided to transfer. But Foster did so without really researching his options.

He reconsidered and, fortunately for him, former Illini coach Bill Cubit accepted him back -- fortunately for the new Illinois staff.

Sophomore Ke'Shawn Vaughn is the Illini's bellcow back, but the Illini went into the fall searching for someone who could alleviate some of the burden on their workhorse. Freshman Tre Nation and redshirt freshman Reggie Corbin provide some thunder and lightning, respectively, on the depth chart.

But it's Foster's transformation into a different player (he's shown ability as a receiving threat too) and legit No. 2 option that has allowed the staff to feel more comfortable with taking Vaughn off the field for a few breathers.

"We went into the spring not knowing what we had," Ward said. "Now, during fall camp, we wanted to create some depth. I didn't have any idea he was going to look this good, but you have faith that it will happen if they continue to work hard and develop. It's just been great to see him out here finishing plays and in great shape and just being able to lead us in the room and be good for us all around"

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