By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 11, 2007
Arian Foster took the blame.
His Tennessee teammates and coaches constantly reminded him that the Volunteers' Outback Bowl loss to Penn State wasn't solely his fault, but Foster refused to share the responsibility.
His fumbles resulted in the 10-point differential on the scoreboard -- Penn State won, 20-10 -- so after he answered every question in an empty Volunteers locker room, Foster found the staff member who kept track of game film.
Foster asked him to enlarge the image of Penn State's Tony Davis returning Foster's second fumble for a touchdown.
And when Foster got back to Knoxville, Tenn., he stuck the picture on his locker.
"I feel like that's on the Tennessee fans' minds, and I feel like it's not just the fumble; it's all of last year," Foster said. "I just have to improve."
With the picture as motivation, Foster turned in what Coach Phillip Fulmer called the junior's "best spring yet," and Tennessee will need his continued determination in the backfield, especially since announcing Tuesday that fellow tailback LaMarcus Coker was suspended indefinitely for violating an undisclosed team rule.
Coker, who led Tennessee with 696 yards as a freshman in 2006 and was listed atop this year's depth chart, was suspended for several practices last December as well.
It is unclear whether he will be available for the Vols' season opener at California on Sept. 1.
Losing Coker throws a significant kink in Fulmer's plan for a three-back rotation that he hoped would reestablish Tennessee's running prowess a year after the team averaged 108 rushing yards a game, its lowest since 1964.
"What does Tennessee do when it is at its best? Run," Fulmer said prior to the suspension. With no established deep threats at wide receiver -- the most experienced wideout is junior Lucas Taylor, who has 14 career receptions -- the Vols will need to run more than the 324 times they did last season, their third fewest since 1950.
"At times, when we had good looks, we were able to do what we wanted with the run," Fulmer said. "But you've got to have the confidence in your running game and you've got to call it. And you've got to have some consistency there to do that successfully."
Inconsistency in the backfield came in many forms, including injuries as Coker and sophomore Montario Hardesty recovered from knee problems and Foster worked past a sprained ankle. Or in the case of the Outback Bowl, Foster's season-best performance of 65 yards on 12 carries was tainted by two costly fumbles.
"That game wasn't an easy thing for him," running backs coach Kurt Roper said. "But he stepped up immediately, answered all the tough questions and I think he carried the mentality into the offseason that this play could either make him worse or probably make him better."
With Coker out and Hardesty nursing a sore groin, the pressure on Foster to excel has grown exponentially. But he knows he's capable of surpassing the 322 rushing yards he gained last season. As a freshman in 2005, he ran for 879, averaging 4.8 yards per carry.
"I came into the fall and spring really raring to go," Foster said. "I have to play with a bit of a chip on my shoulder."
Foster, the only tailback on the Tennessee roster with two years of college experience that included starting time, trained all summer with a gritty resolve, inadvertently delving into a leadership role that showed younger players how to bounce back.
"The first thing about Arian is he's going to show leadership through his own work," Roper said. "He'll get there early, stay there late and try to finish first in everything. He's trying to influence to younger guys and even some of the older guys and I'm pleased with that. I think that takes a composed and confident person."
Foster has embraced his leadership role and said he knew he couldn't let the weight of those two fumbles crush him. But even eight months after that game, Foster said the photo would remain on his locker.
"No, it's not quite ready to come down yet," Foster said. "It still inspires me."