CHAMPAIGN – Illinois broke a school record this season by starting 16 true freshmen. Kendrick Foster isn’t one of them.
While coach Lovie Smith is building the program for the future, Foster doesn’t have that kind of time. He is one of just 10 seniors on the roster, and coming into his final season he was poised to cap off his career as the Illini’s primary running back. After all, he piled up 1,328 all-purpose yards last year, including 720 rushing yards and seven touchdowns, and another 554 yards on kick returns.
He started his eighth career game in the opener against Ball State. But after rushing for just 15 yards on eight carries, he lost his starting role to Mike Epstein. In the following weeks, freshman Ra’Von Bonner also moved ahead of Foster on the depth chart. The senior carried the ball just five times for 16 yards over the next six games.
“That definitely was a heartache for me,” Foster said. “It was a tough pill to swallow.”
With Epstein and Bonner both sidelined with injuries, Foster has re-emerged as the top running back. He has started in the past two games and rushed for 139 yards and a touchdown. He has also recorded two catches for 46 yards.
There are just three games left before Foster shuts the door on his college career. This year isn’t the one the Peoria native envisioned back in the summer, but Foster insists that there is still something to play for individually and collectively as the Illini (2-7, 0-6 Big Ten) try to snap a seven-game skid with a home game Saturday against Indiana (3-6, 0-6).
He plans on using the next few games to showcase his potential as an NFL running back, but also wants to help his team take home some hardware against its conference rivals.
Last week, Illinois missed out on the Purdue Cannon trophy in a 19-point loss to Purdue.
“We got two more trophy games,” Foster said. “The Illibuck probably hasn’t been here for like 6 years. We want to get that trophy back here, and then we have the [Land of Lincoln] Trophy.”
However, before Illinois takes on Ohio State and Northwestern, it must first face the Hoosiers, and Foster will most likely make his third consecutive start.
Since Smith implemented a two-quarterback system, Jeff George Jr. and Cam Thomas have combined for just 466 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions over the past three games. The Illini are averaging 186.9 passing yards and have the worst scoring offense in the Big Ten at just over 16 points per game.
Smith said that he will rely heavily on Foster in the run game against Indiana.
“He did some good things this past week,” Smith said. “He’ll
get more opportunities this weekend.”
In addition to Epstein and Bonner, running backs Dre Brown and Reggie Corbin have also been out with injuries. Corbin could make a return against the Hoosiers.
But regardless of who joins him in the backfield, Smith is confident in Foster because of the perseverance he’s shown all season. He knows Foster hasn’t received the amount of touches he’d hoped for, but said the senior has remained prepared.
“As a football player your role will change,” Smith said. “If you just hang in there, eventually what you want to do, I think you end up being able to do, and [for him] that’s playing running back right now.”