NCCU's Taz Foster fights uphill battle for D-I respect

Sep. 05, 2013 @ 10:30 PM

Athletes aiming for the next level are told to focus on getting better, because coaches will find them no matter where they are.

Coaches sometimes don’t see so well, though, and end up overlooking undersized linebackers from little locales.

“I’m from a small town, in Henderson,” N.C. Central senior linebacker Tazmon Foster said. “We don’t get that many big recruits out there. I didn’t get recruited hard out of high school, but I knew I was a great football player, and I knew that if I kept my faith in God, I’d go somewhere and be a great football player.”

Foster wasn’t bad at all on Saturday against Duke, never mind that the Blue Devils shut out NCCU 45-0 at Wallace Wade Stadium.

Duke had the ball first, and there was Foster sticking his nose in the mix with redshirt-freshman linebacker Jordan Miles for the first stop of the game, bringing down Blue Devil running back Juwan Thompson after a 10-yard gain. Foster helped put four ball carriers on the ground in the opening drive and kept it up, his 13 hits leading all tacklers.

Foster almost kept the Eagles from laying that goose egg, scooping up an apparent second-quarter fumble and running into the end zone with it. But the officials agreed that Duke receiver Anthony Nash never had possession of the football and reversed the ruling on the field, keeping NCCU off the scoreboard.

The instincts by Foster on that play — his nose for the ball — are what define him. He’s a playmaker.

Yet he once had to anchor his own highlight reel.

After an all-conference senior season in 2008-09 in both football and basketball at Henderson’s Northern Vance High School, Foster suited up for N.C. Wesleyan, a Division III program in Rocky Mount. In two years, Foster tackled 227 ball carriers, establishing a school record.

But Foster, as humble as they come, believed he was a Division I football player.

“I’ve always been a good athlete,” Foster said. “I’m an undersized linebacker. But I knew I had the talent to play at a bigger school.”

That’s how Foster ended up on NCCU’s campus a year ago.

“He just showed up,” former NCCU coach Henry Frazier III said this summer, weeks before losing his job.

Foster came to Durham with a dream and that highlight reel of his that got into the hands of NCCU assistant coach Lamar Manigo. That sort of approach isn’t unheard of but just usually doesn’t amount to much after coaches press “play.”

Manigo, before taking a look at Foster’s highlights, had been told that NCCU was good to go as far as the number of linebackers on the team. But what he saw on the screen made his eyes get big, and he insisted that Frazier take a look at the Division III kid who could sniff out footballs from miles away.

Foster buckled his chinstrap for NCCU’s 2012 spring football practice and has been making plays ever since.

“He had these blue cleats on, and when I’m watching the practice film, he was making every tackle. I kept saying, ‘Who is this guy?’” Frazier said. “He had blue cleats on. That’s all I remember. So I put him on scholarship.”

Foster earned that grant, starting NCCU’s final seven games. He missed some contests while awaiting clearance on his transfer from N.C. Wesleyan but made up for lost time with 80 tackles in eight games.

“He’s going to average 12 to 15 tackles a game. I’m going to tell you that right now,” Frazier said.

Last season, Foster returned a fumble 32 yards for a score and made the ESPN SportsCenter Top 10 when he picked off a pass and hauled it 80 yards for a touchdown during a game that was nationally televised on ESPNU.

“A lot of people think they’ve seen my best football, but I don’t think they’ve seen my best football. I like to play good when the lights come on,” Foster said. “One day I just want to win a national championship.”

That would have to happen this season. This will be Foster’s last tour around the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

NCCU was in the hunt for last year’s MEAC title, which would have earned the Eagles a berth in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. Injuries clipped NCCU late in the season and messed up the plan.

Foster will be counted on to hold together a defense that lost defensive line stars John Drew and Xavier Proctor.

Proctor recently made the Detroit Lions’ practice squad, and Drew was in National Football League training camps with the Lions and the New England Patriots.

Foster (5-10, 215) said he came to Durham believing NCCU would give him a better shot at making it to the NFL.

Frazier compared Foster to the late NFL linebacker Sam Mills, an multiple-time All-Pro at 5-9, 230.

“That’s who he is. He’s Sam Mills,” Frazier said. “Watch him. He’s so crafty. He doesn’t take those hits from those big boys.”

“When I see an O-lineman pulling, (I) hit him before he hits me, because I know if he gets his hands on me and my feet stop — I’m already undersized — he might could drive me out of there,” Foster said. “I try to hit them as hard as I can so they can stay off me.”

NCCU at the moment is at something of a convergence point where football fantasies become realities, with Foster moving from Division III ball to the Division I-FCS level, as well as Proctor’s affiliation with the Lions.

“Anything is possible through hard work,” Proctor said. “It doesn’t really matter where you went to school, how big you are or how fast you are and things like that. It just matters how hard you really work. Because if you really work and you’re supposed to be somewhere, someone’s going to find you.”

Coaches sometimes need a little assistance with that, and there is such a thing as a ball player helping himself a little bit.

That’s what Tazmon Foster did.