On Saturday against Purdue, one of the few seniors on the Illinois football team was finally given a chance to shine.
Through a rash of injuries, Kendrick Foster was the sole running back to get carries for the Illini against the Boilermakers, and the 5-foot-9 back from Peoria is the Illinois player of the game from the 29-10 loss to Purdue.
Foster had a team-high 73 yards rushing on 17 carries and added a pair of catches for 46 yards. This was the type of production that many Illini fans expected from Foster to begin the year, after he seized the starting role in 2016 from Ke’Shawn Vaughn and racked up 720 rushing yards at a cool 5.7 yards per carry as a junior last season.
That hasn’t been the case this season, as Foster first was passed by freshman Mike Epstein, then freshman Ra’Von Bonner. Even Dre Brown saw recent action at tailback over Foster in recent weeks.
Through the first seven games of the season, Foster was given just 13 carries for 31 yards — just over 2.3 yards per carry — and only one catch for nine yards. It had come full circle as Foster, the guy who replaced an incumbent starter out of nowhere in 2016, was not seeing playing time for some reason.
That all changed in the past two games. With Epstein out for the season and Bonner and Brown additionally sidelined with injuries, Foster has been called upon heavily against Wisconsin last week and Purdue on Saturday. In those two contests, Foster has tripled his workload with 32 carries for 139 yards and a touchdown and even hauled in a pair of catches.
So why was Foster shuffled down the depth chart for much of the season?
Lovie Smith will never divulge more information than absolutely necessary, so we might never know for sure. It’s easy to see why the coaching staff wanted Epstein as the team’s feature back -- the freshman was the Illini’s biggest home run threat for the first half of the season before sustaining a season-ending lower body injury.
Bonner is different than any other back on the roster, as he’s a power runner that is best served in-between the tackles. He grinds away three yards at a time and will usually gain positive yards even if it’s not flashy or a big play, so it makes sense that he would soak up some of the short yardage and goal line situations. That left little room for Foster to earn carries.
Going forward, it looks like it might be Foster’s show to finish out the season. Lovie’s ‘need to know’ shtick with the media means that we won’t know if Bonner will return this season and put Foster back on the bench.
But for right now, we’re seeing a whole lot of Kendrick Foster — finally.