Three-yard gains don't get fans terribly excited as a rule, but the difference between second-and-13 and second-and-seven is huge. And that's why Arian Foster might be the most underrated back in college football. After all, you can't "finish" runs unless you get them started.
With him missing Tennessee's Aug. 9 scrimmage due to a leg injury, the Vols' top three tailbacks rushed 26 times for a meager 37 yards, an average of 1.4 yards per attempt. With Foster back in action Aug. 16, the top four tailbacks rushed 31 times for 138 yards, an average of 4.5 yards per attempt. Obviously, his return wasn't entirely responsible for that dramatic rise ... but it contributed.
"Having Arian out there helped," offensive line coach Greg Adkins said. "Arian always seems to make the first guy miss, and that's a plus."
Head coach Phillip Fulmer echoed those sentiments.
"He's hard to tackle," he said. "It's hard for the first guy to get him down. He's got some conditioning work to do after not getting all of the practice work that he needs – I saw that – but he'll be game-ready."
Although he said he is not yet 100 percent recovered, Foster looked pretty close to game-ready in Saturday night's scrimmage. He rushed three times for 18 yards and caught a pass out of the backfield for an 18-yard gain. He also lined up at flanker once and gathered in a six-yard completion.
"I love that," Foster said of being moved out of the tailback slot. "One of my strengths is my hands. I've always been a dual-threat running back, and I enjoy getting the ball out of the backfield."
Foster showcased his knack for receiving last fall by catching 39 passes for 340 yards and two touchdowns.
Foster got four consecutive touches – two carries, two receptions – on the first possession of Saturday night's scrimmage and helped fuel a 10-play, 71-yard touchdown march. He went to the sidelines as a precautionary measure shortly thereafter, and the Vols did not crack the end zone again.
New offensive coordinator Dave Clawson's attack plan is simple: Get the ball in the hands of his playmakers. That means Arian Foster, who ran for 1,193 yards as a junior in 2007, will have the ball in his hands a lot this fall.
"He got the ball to myself, to Montario (Hardesty) and to Gerald Jones," Foster said. "He likes to get the ball in the hands of the people who make plays."
Especially when one of those people has an uncanny knack for making that first guy miss.