BOGACZYK: Foster Finds New Home, but It’s a Familiar Place
The Word on the Herd-Oct. 23, 2015
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – He’s played a little more than a season-and-a-half of football for Marshall, but it seems some of Hyleck Foster’s teammates didn’t quite recognize him when the erstwhile slot receiver got a position change.
“He was like a kid in a candy store when we moved him three weeks ago,” Herd running backs coach Chris Barclay said earlier this week. “Some of the running backs (said), ‘I never knew he had so many teeth in his mouth, he smiled so much.’”
Then, in last Saturday’s win at Florida Atlantic, the Herd had lost seniors Devon Johnson (injury) and Remi Watson (dehydrated) and No. 3 back Tony Pittman was on a multi-game shelf. Coach Doc Holliday’s options were sophomore Foster or redshirt freshman Keion Davis.
“If you told me we were going to play with Hyleck Foster and Keion Davis at tailback, I may not have come into work the next day,” Holliday joked. “I would’ve held my breath out there, but the kids stepped up and played.
“That’s what they did and I’m proud of them. I feel a little better when they go out there Saturday because at least they’ve got their feet wet a little bit and played with confidence.”
Led by Foster’s 122 yards on 17 carries, Marshall piled up 326 ground yards in a 33-17 victory. Johnson’s three carries included a 75-yard touchdown. Watson had 66 yards on 11 carries and Davis was 11-for-59. Foster’s numbers included a 66-yard scoring run, too.
“I’m trying to look, see, ‘Am I really running this fast?’ or are they just that slow,” Foster said earlier this week. “I’m just looking and I really can’t believe it. It’s just something that one of those things you can’t explain it. It just happened and it’s just natural. It was a great feeling.”
He became the first Marshall player to have a 100-yard rushing game in his running back debut since walk-on freshman Ron Lear had 27 carries for 126 yards in a 31-14 victory over Toledo in the 1979 season opener. It was Marshall’s only win that season.
Lear had been No. 7 on the running back depth chart at the start of August camp.
(The Rockets’ secondary coach in that game? Current Herd defensive coordinator Chuck Heater.)
The 5-foot-11, 185-pound Foster became the seventh Herd running back with a 100-yard rushing game in the last 35 games, a span – starting with the 2013 opener – that includes 31 of those triple-digit ground games.
The win at FAU also brought a first for Marshall since its return to major college football in 1997.
The last time a Herd team had four running backs with at least 50 ground yards was Nov. 4, 1995 in a 52-0 victory at East Tennessee State. In the ETSU Mini-Dome that day, Chris Parker had 157 yards, Olandis Gary 87, Erik Thomas 80 and Javonne Darling 59.
The history Foster was trying to run away from only came earlier this season, when he had ball-handling issues as a punt returner and pass receiver. So, the former star running back at Gaffney (S.C.) High School became one again.
“I’m staying in the backfield,” Foster said, as the Herd (6-1, 3-0 Conference USA) plays its 114th Homecoming game Saturday against North Texas (0-6, 0-3).
When the season began, the Foster was the starting slot receiver, filling a role three-year starter – and star – Tommy Shuler used to get to 322 career receptions, ranking fourth in major college history. A move to running back wasn’t even in the cards.
Then, at FAU, he was part of an injury-altered Herd lineup that often included – together – Foster, slot receiver Deandre Reaves, quarterback Chase Litton, right tackle AJ Addison, right guards Cody Collins or Jordan Dowrey and outsider receiver Justin Hunt.
“No way you ever expect that before the season,” Foster said. “Litton and me in the backfield? No, you did not expect that. Just shows you’ve just got to be ready when your opportunity comes … next man up, there you go.
“Chase and I were sitting on the (team) bus, talking … And we were just talking about who we had in the backfield, at this time of the year, nobody expected it, … ‘Me and you in backfield this time of the year.’ And he said, ‘That man has plans,’ and I said, ‘You’re right.’ So, from here on out, we should be excited with the offense we have.”
Foster, whose first two career carries came on flanker sweeps in last season’s Boca Raton Bowl win over Northern Illinois, made his first running back appearance on the final series of the first quarter at FAU. His long TD run came on his eighth carry.
“Sure, I was nervous,” Foster said of his entrance against the Owls. “I was thinking about the ball … don’t fumble, like previously. After that first carry, I just felt like I was back to myself again. I’m back.” He and Barclay said it didn’t take long for Foster to adjust to running back when he was moved a few weeks ago.
“I’d probably say it took me no more than a week,” Foster said. “When I play running back, it’s really just natural ability. It’s nothing impressive that I do. I just follow blocks. I’ve got good feet, great vision. It’s just something I’ve been doing all my life. I was a little rusty when I got back there, but I wasn’t too rusty.”
Barclay, who rushed for more than 4,000 yards and 40 touchdowns for Wake Forest from 2002-05, said it was obvious Foster had missed the backfield, where he ran for nearly 3,350 yards in his final two high school seasons.
“Hyleck has a huge care factor,” Barclay said. “He was a running back in high school, so he has familiarity with the position … When it means something to you and you really care about the position you’re playing and it feels familiar, I think you invest everything.
“That’s not to say he wasn’t doing that at wide receiver – but it’s familiar to him, there’s a lot of carryover from high school. It’s just his care factor and preparation, and he really stepped up for us this past week.
“Just like any back, you have to clean up the technique, and there are some fundamental things there we need to focus on. And once we can get him squared away in that area, I think he can be something special because he has incredible instincts and great vision to see the reads and anticipate the cuts and the holes. Once he can clean up his pass protection, I think he can become an every-down type of guy.”
Foster said dealing with the mental side of dealing with the steady sidelines diet after being a starter was his most difficult task.
“It was a lot going through your head,” Foster said of his demotion at the slot and loss of his punt return duties to Reaves. “You’re trying to be patient, but at the same time you think, ‘What worse can happen?’ I hit rock bottom … I learned from it. I matured more and I understand the game more out there. But other than that, I think it was a good life experience for me.
“It was a lot of self-motivation, and talking with my family back home, talking to (receivers) Coach (Mike) Furrey. It was a combination of all that helping me out along the way. The hard work never stopped, every time in the weight room, I was just trying to be better. But I know I haven’t reached the limit yet. I’m just trying to stay humble and work every day.”
Forget the health factor for a minute … Holliday’s program would have needed to groom more running backs anyway, with Johnson and Watson in their final collegiate seasons. The position has become a game of musical chairs, by necessity – but it certainly isn’t music to Holliday’s ears.
The running back depth chart seems as fluid as the nearby Ohio River. Who would have figured that of the Herd’s four 100-yard rushing games this season, three would be by Pittman and Foster?
“He had to,” Holliday responded when asked about Foster stepping up. “We had nobody else. It’s not only good for him, it’s good for us. He’s a talented guy, but we felt that he wasn’t ready to play in the first couple weeks because he didn’t know the protections.
“You could probably put the ball in his hands and run with it but there’s a lot more involved in being a tailback, with the protections and everything that goes along with it. I wasn’t really comfortable with that on Saturday when he went in there, but he went in there and played well.
“So did Keion, so that’s a good thing. Remi (Watson) should be fine (for North Texas). We’ll get Pittman back pretty soon and we’ll be OK.”