It is not often, if ever, where that is the description given by a player about a coach. “He adds the spice that makes the food good.” But that is exactly what a former Bruins running back had to say about UCLA RB coach DeShaun Foster.
Foster has been the guy guiding the running backs in Westwood since 2017. This comes after his much-heralded career as a running back in the Bob Toledo era at UCLA from 1998-2001. He amassed 3,087 career rushing yards, a 4.4 yards per carry average and 3 touchdowns in his college career. For good measure, he also had 548 receiving yards out of the backfield. He led the conference in rushing yards per game his senior year with a 138.6 average.
He was the 34th pick overall (second round) of the 2002 NFL draft going to the Carolina Panthers. It could not have been a more poetic landing spot, with Foster having been born in Charlotte, NC. He spent five years with the Panthers, logging 3,336 yards along the way. He spent his final pro year with the 49ers, picking up 234 yards and a touchdown.
Foster came back to his alma mater as an undergraduate assistant, and then a grad assistant. In 2016 he was in Lubbock as the Texas Tech running backs coach under Kliff Kingsbury. After one year there, he returned to UCLA as the running backs coach and from there, his reputation as a producer of quality players has really started to elevate.
We asked UCLA for access to Foster for this interview. But the number of assistant coaches who have granted interviews during the Chip Kelly era can be counted on one hand with plenty of digits left over. Fortunately, there are others who have plenty to say about Foster.
When we reached out to Chargers running back Joshua Kelley, he not only agreed to the interview, he was downright eager to talk about his mentor whom he now also considers a friend. Kelley is the one who gave us that quote at the top of this piece. It was in reference to Foster’s ability to take a player with skills, and augment those as well as create new ones the player did not even know they were capable of displaying.
Kelley just finished his rookie season with the Chargers after back-to-back thousand-yard rushing seasons at UCLA under the tutelage of Foster. For all of the natural skills Kelley may have had when he transferred to UCLA from UC Davis, he credits Foster with much of the rest. “He had a huge, I want to say a tremendous, impact on my years at UCLA and how I play now. He pretty much taught me how to play the position.” Kelley acknowledged that may sound like an overstatement, but he assured us it was not. “In high school, you’re playing running back, but you’re not really taught how to play running back. He taught me how to use my thought process as a runner, how to diagnose a defense, how to train your body to make this certain cut this certain way. He taught me so much about the position.”
Kelley said a lot of players at the Division I level are talented, but finding a coach who can work with the mental part of the game makes all the difference.
UCLA’s current running back-to-NFL player, Demetric Felton, has had a different journey with Foster. Felton spent 2019 as a receiver, both in the slot and out wide, with a handful of carries, behind Kelley. With Kelley gone to the NFL, Felton moved to the primary running back spot in the shortened 2020 season. Not an easy transition for a guy who is 5- 10, 200 pounds. But Felton said he was eager to make the switch, in large part because of Foster. “To me it was a blessing to be able to move into the running back room because he helped me so much. He helped me take my game to another level.”
Both players said it was a difference maker that Foster played at UCLA and in the NFL. They each said it added value to the message from him. “Hearing from someone like him means so much to me,” Felton said. “And he has always been with me every step of the way, so I could not thank him enough.”
One of those steps along the way for Felton possibly involves moving back to the slot position. Because of his size, he got a lot of work catching passes during the week of workouts in front of NFL scouts at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama in January. Foster, the running backs coach, continued to mentor him. “He was still helping me out with drills to work on my running back play, so I didn’t lose that part of the game at all.”
Versatility figures to be a key part of Felton’s NFL future. Again, he gives credit to Foster, “He has been a huge help, whether it was mentally or physically on the field, he has always been giving knowledge to me.”
That knowledge can come in a variety of paths. Spend a few minutes at a UCLA football practice and you see Foster barking out to his troops. But barking at high decibels is not unusual for coaches at any level. Most see it as a way of driving home a point. Kelley says that was not what he got from the intensity at practices from Foster. “I didn’t really see him as a coach. I saw him as more of a teacher and a mentor. He was a guy who wants the best out of you, and he is really going to challenge you. He is going to shoot it to you straight. And he always kept that standard high.”
Kelley said Foster is as quick with the accolades as he was with the corrections. “When you do well, he is going to be the first guy to come up to you and congratulate you. And when you have a mistake, he is going to be the guy to tell you, ‘That’s alright, but make sure you look at it this way. We’ll watch it when we get in the tape room.’”
Coaching in any sport is a “what have you done for me lately” arrangement. Foster has helped guide two players from his running back into the NFL. Based on that alone, in light of the overall team performance the last three years, his $290,000 a year annual salary makes him a bargain for the football program. He has one year left on his existing contract. And now there is also a new bounty of talent to work with when Spring camp opens in the coming weeks.
Grad transfer Brittain Brown is returning for a sixth year of school and a second in the UCLA backfield. While statistically he did not have his biggest year in 2020, he was also sharing the workload with Felton. He will likely be sharing it again, but is just as likely to increase his carries. It’s safe to presume that working with Foster played a role in his decision to return. All he has to do is look at his two predecessors.
Then there is Zach Charbonnet, the transfer from Michigan. Charbonnet had 746 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns in his first year in Ann Arbor in 201. Last season he got lost in the large shuffle at running back. We spoke with multiple national recruiting experts who told us that Charbonnet was always high on UCLA. It was reportedly specifically because of Foster. But the splash of playing for Jim Harbaugh won out over the less-than-splashy Chip Kelly. One of the recruiting experts told us that after seeing what Foster has done with Kelley, Felton, and even Brown to this point, the value of making the move to UCLA became an obvious for Charbonnet.
Kelley says the opportunities with Foster last well beyond the time in Westwood. He said he is in contact with his former position coach at least weekly, particularly during the NFL season. Kelley said Foster will ping him during the week about things he saw the running back do during Sunday’s game and sometimes make suggestions. “Or sometimes, he just wants to play Madden with me,” Kelley said with his trademark enthusiastic laugh.
Whatever spice it takes to make the food good.