AMES — Iowa State senior left tackle Sean Foster is Coach Matt Campbell’s “process” incarnate.
Foster started for the Cyclones as a redshirt freshman, but the 6-foot-8 behemoth of a person wasn’t ready. He started because he was Iowa State’s only option in 2017.
In 2018, he began the season starting at left tackle against Iowa, but quickly fell out of favor. Then-Iowa star A.J. Epenesa lined up across from Foster and worked him for the full 60 minutes. Epenesa had five tackles, two sacks and a pass breakup.
“During that game, a lot of things went downhill for me,” Foster said. “I didn’t put myself in the best position to be able to play at my best when my best was needed.”
Campbell would argue he didn’t put Foster in the best position.
“One of the things that Sean was forced into early, here, because of our O-line situation was to have to get on the field in moments where maybe he wasn’t physically ready,” Campbell said. “Unfortunately, it probably wasn’t fair to Sean but it’s where we were in our program at the time.”
After that game, Julian Good-Jones moved to Foster’s left tackle spot and Colin Newell was inserted at center, where Good-Jones had been playing.
Foster only played in one game in 2019.
Now, he plays one of the most important positions on the field, back at left tackle, at a high, high level. Brock Purdy has been sacked just 10 times, the fewest in the Big 12, and Breece Hall is the nation’s most productive rusher running behind Foster and the line.
Foster’s growth is reflective of Campbell’s process.
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His first year at Iowa State, the Cyclones still went 3-9. At the time, then-star cornerback Brian Peavy thought about transferring.
“I started starting and I was putting my all into it and we weren’t winning,” Peavy said in 2018 before the Alamo Bowl. “I thought that’s how it worked — you put in work and then you win. I wasn’t seeing any reward from my work. I started to question what is work ethic, what is this all about? From what I knew, the team worked hard, and I thought we deserved to win more than two games. That’s when I was at rock bottom because I didn’t know how to get from rock bottom.”
But eventually, Campbell’s process began to take hold and Iowa State reversed course and now the Cyclones have won, at minimum, a share of the Big 12 Conference regular-season title and sit at 7-1 in conference play.
For Foster, the 2018 Iowa game was rock bottom. But he, like Iowa State, has turned it around to become a force to be reckoned with.
“After that game, I devoted myself to figuring out what I needed to get better at to be able to perfect my craft,” Foster said. “If it wasn’t for the rest of the guys on the O-line and D-line, I wouldn’t be where I’m at today to play at the level I am this season.”
Campbell started to notice things were clicking for Foster in January. Foster was able to carry that momentum through the spring and summer during the pandemic to put himself in the position he is in now.
“What would’ve happened to a normal person is they’d have that (Iowa) experience, and it wasn’t a positive one, and it’d shut most people down,” Campbell said. “What I’ve always appreciated about Sean is he’s always had the mental approach that the team always comes before self and he’s always had the mental approach to go to work to continue to get better.
“I really felt like his confidence from January through the summer was really earned because of the time of his commitment to his craft, doing an incredible job on the offensive line, being in the weight room, taking care of his body — all those things really came together.
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“With his ability to stay the course, we’ve gotten an exceptional football player this year and I’m really proud of him.”