Foster ready to prove himself all over again

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

The NFL is about proving yourself all over again.

For former Tennessee All-SEC tailback Arian Foster, it will also be about building back his reputation.

Foster is the exception to the rule that says going back to college for your senior season is usually the wisest choice. He received a second-round grade from the NFL draft advisory committee last year, but elected to return to school for his final season.

"I saw the talent we had returning, and I honestly thought we could win an SEC championship," Foster explained. "That's what was missing in my college career, and that's what brought me back. We were so close the year before. I wanted another shot at it."

What he got was a shot to his draft stock and a sobering reminder of how quickly things can turn in the SEC.

The Vols suffered through a dismal 5-7 season, which led to Phillip Fulmer's firing. Foster, who was just 685 yards away from becoming Tennessee's all-time rushing leader heading into the season, never meshed with new offensive coordinator Dave Clawson, and Foster finished with 570 rushing yards and one touchdown on 131 carries.

That's after rushing for 1,193 yards and scoring 14 touchdowns the year before while carrying the ball 245 times.

It was a bitter pill for Foster to swallow.

His coaches lost their jobs. He lost a chance to write his name into the Tennessee record books, and worse, endured a second losing season in Knoxville.

But as this weekend's NFL draft has neared, Foster also realized that he gained something that's been even more difficult to shake: The label of being a bad character guy and somebody who can divide a locker room.

It's a question that has come up with countless general managers, personnel directors and coaches he's met with -- and he can't understand it.

Neither can some of the men who coached him at Tennessee.

"I admit that my senior year I was a little distant, and I stayed away from people," said Foster, who's now projected to go during the latter rounds of the draft. "Last year was hard for everybody. We saw it all crumbling before us. There was finger-pointing in the locker room, and the morale was terrible.

"It was sad, because I knew what the program was and what it should be. I guess part of the reason I didn't say much is that I didn't want to add to the negative atmosphere. Everybody could feel it, and they would be lying if they said it wasn't negative. There was just so much arguing that I didn't want to make it worse."

As his opportunities on the field dwindled, Foster also felt like he didn't have a platform to say as much to his teammates. He had three carries against Georgia, six against Alabama and eight against Auburn.

"I wasn't really involved in the offense by midseason," Foster said. "It's hard to go to your teammates at that point and have them respect what's coming out of your mouth. They look at you and are like, 'You're standing on the sideline.'

"I just put my head down and tried to work as hard as I could the rest of the way. There was nothing I could do or say at that point, but my attitude was never combative or divisive. I'm not going to say I never got into any arguments with anybody, but I did my best to be a part of the solution and not part of the problem."

Fulmer has heard from several NFL clubs inquiring about Foster, and he's assured them that Foster was never a trouble-maker or a problem in the locker room.

As a sophomore, Foster was arrested for disorderly conduct and underage consumption along with two other teammates at a late-night party following the LSU game. He said he was trying to break up a fight. That charge was later expunged from his record, and he hasn't had any off-the-field trouble since.

"Any talk about Arian being a problem or divisive ... that just wasn't the case," Fulmer said. "He had a bad rap as sophomore being a fumbler. But as a junior, he had one fumble that was his fault that we got back. But he's as complete a back as we've had. He can protect the passer, catches it extremely well out of the backfield and has shown his toughness by playing hurt."

Foster had his best season at Tennessee in 2007 when David Cutcliffe, now the head coach at Duke, was running the offense. Cutcliffe, too, thinks Foster will excel in the NFL and thinks any talk of Foster being a bad character guy has been blown way out of proportion.

"He might have been a little immature like a lot of players are at that stage, but he was never a bad character guy," Cutcliffe said. "He's an extremely hard worker. He can run routes. He knows pass protections. He has excellent hands and is a big back with a powerful lower body. But the thing that makes him so special is that he's smart."

There's no denying that Foster had some crippling fumbles during his career. He fumbled on the goal line against South Carolina as a freshman, and his fumble against Penn State in the 2007 Outback Bowl changed the entire complexion of that game. In both cases, Tennessee lost.

"I've had four fumbles in my last two years, and two of those were botched handoffs," Foster said. "I understand I got the tag of being a fumbler. But if you look at my fumble-to-carry ratio, I think it holds up with a lot of good running backs. It's like Marcus Allen says: If you haven't fumbled, then you haven't carried it."

Cutcliffe said he wanted Foster on the field during pressure situations.

"He just needs to remember what everybody criticizes him for: Take care of the ball, big guy," Cutcliffe said. "Nobody ever wants to let it go. I think he's going to be a steal at the next level. You don't see very many pure pro backs like him. He can catch it out of the backfield, protect and do all the things they ask a back to do in an extensive NFL pass protection system."

Foster didn't help himself this offseason when he injured his hamstring at the Senior Bowl. His 40-yard dash times weren't great (ranging between 4.6 and 4.7), but he's still a 230-pound back who can do a lot of things. He caught 83 passes during his career and averaged at least 4.4 yards per carry in three of his four seasons at Tennessee.

"I went from hearing that I would be drafted in the second round to coming back to school for my senior season and now hearing that I'm all of a sudden an average player," Foster said. "That's disheartening, because I know in the back of my mind that if I would have had the same number of opportunities, I would have produced exactly the same way. I'm not trying to throw anybody under the bus. That's truly how I feel.

"It starts all over now, and it doesn't matter where I go in the draft. I'm coming in with the mindset that this belongs to me. I'm tired of thinking about woulda, coulda or shoulda. This is my job now, and I'm ready to make somebody happy that they drafted me."