Tough turnovers

Timing is everything. Just ask Tennessee tailback Arian Foster.

The Vol senior has a ratio of fumbles-to-touches that surely ranks with the best among UT rushers of recent vintage, yet he is snidely referred to as "Fumbling Foster" by some ... simply because his miscues tend to come at the least opportune moments.

He fumbled as he was lunging for the goal line in the fourth quarter of the 2005 South Carolina game. Those seven points could've turned a 16-15 loss into a 22-16 win.

He fumbled inside the Penn State 10-yard line in the 2007 Outback Bowl, and a Nittany Lion returned the bobble 88 yards for a touchdown. That 14-point swing might've been the difference between a 20-10 loss and a 17-13 victory.

Branded by those two high-profile mistakes, Arian Foster subsequently was blamed for fumbles that weren't even his fault or weren't even recovered by the opponent.

A botched handoff from quarterback Erik Ainge in 2007 at Gainesville was returned for a Florida TD that opened the floodgates for a Gator 59-20 blowout. Never mind that Ainge had a broken finger that caused him to hand off awkwardly with the wrong hand; many observers blamed Foster for the tide-turning play.

Foster was roasted again for coughing up the ball on a game-tying, fourth-quarter drive in the '07 South Carolina game ... even though Tennessee recovered the loose ball and went on to win the game in overtime. This was a case of "no harm, no foul," so why blame the guy for a fumble that could've lost the game but didn't?

There is no disputing that Foster's fumble at the UCLA 6-yard line in the 2008 opener was huge. A touchdown there would've padded Tennessee's lead to 21-7, virtually sealing the doom of the offensively challenged Bruins.

Still, labeling the guy a fumbler because of three bobbles in four seasons seems a little harsh ... at least to Vol head coach Phillip Fulmer.

Asked during his Tuesday news conference about Foster's knack for losing the ball at critical times, the head man quickly challenged the question.

"That's way overstated," he said. "He had one fumble last year, and we got it back. He did a good job."

As for Foster's fumble vs. UCLA, Fulmer noted that "Arian was trying to make a play in the ball game and got the ball away from his body.

"Arian doesn't have a fumbling problem now. He has a ball-security problem. He gets the ball away from his body too much because his running style is such that he's trying to do all of those extra things (break tackles, make difficult cuts, lunge for extra inches, etc.)."

Although Foster carried the football like a loaf of bread when he arrived at Tennessee four years ago, he has worked hard to fix that problem. Still, he reverts to his old habits occasionally ... sometimes with disastrous results.

"If you have a ball-security problem, eventually you're going to have issues," Fulmer said. "We are working like heck to get the ball tucked away where it's supposed to be, high and tight."

In spite of Foster's "issues," the Vols' head coach says the characterization of his star tailback as a fumbler is grossly unfair.

"There's not a quarterback who has played any football that hasn't thrown an interception," Fulmer said. "There's not a back out there anywhere that has played the game that hasn't had a fumble."

Foster's fumble in the '08 opener obscured the fact he had a terrific game otherwise. He gained 96 yards on just 13 carries, including a 41-yard burst. He averaged a hefty 7.4 yards per rush and tied for the team lead with four receptions.

"I was really pleased to see how Arian Foster played in the game, except for the one play going in that cost us points," Fulmer said. "Arian looked like he's gained a step. He actually ran away from some people in the game, and I was glad to see him do that."

Outrunning the "Fumbling Foster" label is next on the agenda.

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