Foster Fast? Trimmer RB Kendrick Foster adds surprising, needed speed to Illini offense

Kendrick Foster is a different player and a different man than a year ago. That combination might make him the difference-maker for Illinois -- all he's ever wanted to be.

CHAMPAIGN - Former Illinois running back Josh Ferguson earned the moniker "Fergy Fast" during his game-breaking days with the Illini.

That elite speed and elusiveness are the reason that the Colts on Saturday kept the undrafted rookie on their 53-man roster. Yet, that loss of elite speed and elusiveness was a huge concern for the Illini all offseason.

But after watching junior Kendrick Foster blaze past defenders for 118 yards on four carries -- setting an Illinois game record for yards per carry -- with Ferguson watching from the sidelines, have the Illini traded "Fergy Fast" for "Foster Fast"?

"That's up to you guys (in the media)," Foster said with a laugh. "Fergy, that's my brother. I think he made the Colts (53-man roster), and I'm so excited about that. I haven't been able to talk to him yet. He gave me a text and told me 'congrats.' I'm looking forward to seeing him later to tell him congratulations because he's my big brother. He came in and he was my big brother, my chauffeur who taught me and I looked up him ever since he was here."

Entering the spring "fast" and "Kendrick Foster" rarely had been used in the same sentence, at least since Foster joined the Illini. The Peoria Richwoods product had tree-trunk thighs and ran hard, but the 5-foot-9 back was more of a plodder than a burner. No way would he be mentioned in the same breath as Ferguson.

Then Lovie Smith arrived. And the former NFL head coach told Foster and many of his teammates a blunt truth, one a man should rarely should say.

"You're fat."

OK, maybe Smith didn't put it so harshly.

"We did ask our guys to lose a lot (of weight)," Smith said. "We were a heavy football team. That's just a part of everything we ask them to do. We know we have a long way to go. But as a coach, when you come in, you ask guys to buy into how we're trying to win football games. They've answered the bell on everything we've asked them to do."

As reported here last month, Smith told Foster to envision carrying two five dumbbells on either side of his body while trying to cut and explode as a running back.

Foster took the message and transformed his body -- mostly through diet by cutting out fast food, late-night snacks and sugary drinks -- and in the process transformed his game.

Foster's rediscovered speed and quickness was confirmed during Saturday's 52-3 rout of Murray State as the redshirt junior running back scooted for two 56-yard touchdown runs.

On the first, Foster took a shotgun handoff from Wes Lunt, followed great blocks to the second level, turned right running perpendicular to sideline, turned the corner and raced untouched to the end zone.

On the second, he made a quick cut to the left before he found the edge and blasted by the second level, going untouched to the end zone.

It's clear that Foster has trimmed more than milliseconds off his 40-yard dash time.

"I feel like I'm running a 4.4(-second 40-yard dash) again," said Foster, the No. 5 career rushing yardage leader in Illinois prep history after totaling 6,401 yards at Peoria Richwoods. "In high school, I ran a 4.4. I think once I put that weight on here, I was probably running a high 4.6. I'm running a high 4.4 and my agility is back. I'm taking everything in stride. I'm excited for the season."

The Illini return talented downhill, one-cut runner Ke'Shawn Vaughn (17 carries, 49 yards, one touchdown), but he can't carry the entire rushing load. Foster's emergence during training camp and now Game One of the season -- albeit against an inferior opponent -- give hope that Vaughn will have not only help, but a legit weapon to complement him.

"(Foster) really transformed his body this offseason," Lunt said. "Coach Smith really harped on body fat. You can tell (with Foster). He really had a second gear today. I'm really happy for him. He's a hard worker and deserves everything he gets."

And to think, Foster almost decided to play for an FCS team like the one he left in his dust on Saturday

After not receiving a carry his first two years at Illinois and earning just 15 late-season carries as a redshirt sophomore in 2015, Foster announced in November that he would transfer. But after receiving interest from FCS programs, Foster decided to return to Illinois -- and was welcomed back by former Illini head coach Bill Cubit -- mostly to receive the prestigious degree from the university.

"I had to be a man and mature and realize that my education is more important," Foster said. "I can only play this game for a small window. I just wanted to get my education really."

But Foster also making the most of his new opportunity on the gridiron.

"You can see there that pent-up energy because he has hasn't played much the last three years," said redshirt sophomore offensive lineman Nick Allegretti, who also has trimmed body fat. "You saw it. Those two big runs, as soon as he hit that hole, he was gone. There's no one going to run him down. He's just so excited to be in that role that he feels he should have been in."

Foster is a different player and a different man. That combination might make him the difference-maker for Illinois -- all he's ever wanted to be.

"I'm 22 years old. I'm a junior," Foster said. "What I went through from a freshman to now, I grew up a lot. I don't take anything for granted because I've been at the bottom, and I've been through it. I'm just taking everything I get by stride."

Those strides are just a bit faster now. Foster Fast.

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