Two years and several nagging injuries later, the 6-1, 225-pound junior from San Diego is viewed by many of those same fans as a good back who lacks the breakaway speed to be a big-time player.
That raises another thought-provoking question for the ages: How fast is Arian Foster?
Vol running backs coach Kurt Roper briefly mulled the query before answering: "The best way I can say it is 'fast enough.' He's got a lot of speed. I think he's a sub-4.5 or 4.5 guy who has a lot of power and a lot of strength, so 'fast enough' is the best answer I can come up with"
Foster certainly appeared "fast enough" last weekend. In Game 5 vs. Georgia he rushed 17 times for 98 yards with touchdown runs of nine, 22 and four yards. He showed the power to run through tackles. He showed the vision to find cracks near the goal line. He showed the speed to get outside. Still, many fans continue to consider him an average tailback.
Part of Foster's perception problem stems from the fact he must share carries with teammates LaMarcus Coker and Montario Hardesty. Coker is the fan favorite because of his blazing speed, yet he gained just 17 yards on eight carries vs. Georgia. Hardesty, who has been even more injury-prone than Foster, came off the bench to rush 14 times for 68 yards vs. Georgia.
Foster has cracked the 100-yard mark just once since his freshman season, that being a 125-yard effort against Southern Miss in Game 2 this fall. With Coker and Hardesty already cutting into his snaps and touted freshman Lennon Creer waiting in the wings, Foster's chances of topping 100 yards again are not good. He is averaging just 15 carries per game this fall, despite being the No. 1 tailback.
Because Tennessee posted a season-high 44 rushing attempts against Georgia, Foster was able to carry 17 times last weekend. Hardesty had 14 rushes, Coker eight and Creer three. Roper figures the carry distribution proved very effective.
"I think it worked out good," the Vol aide said. "Will it always be like that? I don't know that. I thought there was a pretty good flow to the game and each guy was making plays. Like I say all the time, I feel like I've got multiple guys that can be starters, go out there and play."
Since Tennessee will face better rushing defenses the rest of this month – Mississippi State, Alabama, South Carolina – Roper may be trying to divide 34 carries per game, instead of 44, during the coming weeks. That will make his job a little trickier.
"You only have a limited number of carries, a limited number of balls to go around," he said. "In that (Georgia) game, obviously, we got a lot of opportunities, and I thought the guys took advantage of it."
Including the old slow-poke himself, Arian Foster.