KNOXVILLE — Phillip Fulmer’s face was filled with frustration as he reviewed tape of his University of Tennessee football team’s Tuesday scrimmage.
“It really wasn’t what we wanted,” Fulmer said. “A lot of young guys just didn’t understand the level that they’ve got to reach to play. That’s still a battle.”
Fulmer was pleased with the team’s intensity last Saturday, but that was the first major scrimmage of the spring, and it took place at Neyland Stadium. The Volunteers would seem doomed if they were flat that day.
Less than 72 hours later, though, coaches challenged the players with another scrimmage — this one of the 45-play variety inside access-restricted Haslam Field. No media and very few family members and boosters were on hand for Tuesday’s full-contact session.
“They may have been sore and those kind of things, but we did not show the kind of intensity that we need to show to be a team that’s improving,” Fulmer said. “Now … that’s obviously not the whole group.”
Some players got it.
Arian Foster got it.
According to Fulmer, Foster played Tuesday the way a fifth-year senior should. He fought for tough yards, made nifty moves in space and motivated teammates.
Most impressively for Fulmer, though, Foster “stepped up and took a couple of blitzing linebackers on like a big-time back is supposed to do.
“I thought Arian took a real step Tuesday,” Fulmer said. “He was one of the real bright spots in the scrimmage. He showed why he’s 600 yards from being the all-time leading rusher in Tennessee’s history.”
By all accounts, Foster is working hard this spring. He’s dropped 10 pounds since January — down to around 215 — and he hasn’t softened his stance that he returned for his senior season to win a championship. With quarterback Erik Ainge gone — as well as longtime defensive leaders Jerod Mayo, Jonathan Hefney and Xavier Mitchell — Foster is now essentially the face of Tennessee football.
That face looked at the ground after Thursday’s practice, as Foster stood with slumped shoulders while addressing reporters. After some postpractice individual drills, he opened the interview by muttering, “I’m tired.”
“I wanted to lose weight,” Foster added later. “I was too heavy to end the season last year. My whole game, I just felt it.
“But I like where I’m at right now. I’m faster already this year than I was last year. I’m a little bit quicker, so I’m just working on some things to get me balanced at my new weight.”
How will Foster accept his new role, though? What kind of a leader will he be? These answers become more important as the days dwindle to UT’s Sept. 1 opener at UCLA — about two hours from Foster’s hometown of San Diego.
“There’s different types of leadership,” first-year Vols offensive coordinator Dave Clawson said. “There’s vocal leadership, there’s leadership by example, and there’s guys that just make plays. My preference would just be that (Foster) makes plays. He needs to perform at a high level consistently, and he’s a guy we’d like to count on for 12 games, and then 13 and 14 beyond that.”
Foster said he understands that. If he doesn’t, though, first-year running backs coach Stan Drayton has been there to remind him — and not always in a happy tone. Foster was arguably closer than any Vol to departed assistant coach Trooper Taylor, and he admitted the transition to Clawson and Drayton hasn’t always been seamless.
“It’s tough, just because of the transition with the different coaching styles, different expectations,” Foster said. “But I like them, and I like what they have to bring to the table.
“You’re going to bump heads with anybody. It’s just all about how you react to it.”
Foster said he was “comfortable working toward the goals” Drayton has set for him. Those goals are not limited to three hours every afternoon.
“I’ve got to do things on a little more consistent basis, I guess,” Foster said. “What is (Drayton) looking for? Just being consistent with my actions off the field, really.”
On the field, coaches want Foster to set the tone again this afternoon during the team’s second major scrimmage at Neyland. He’s expected to get more than the one touch he received last week, when Clawson had only installed two running plays. Two more running plays were added this week, and Clawson claims those four base plays — with several reads and variations — are “about 70 percent of the running game.”
Fulmer said he wants to “keep (Foster) sharp, keep him healthy and make sure we’re getting ready for the fall.” That coachspeak hints that Foster could be the lynchpin of Clawson’s first offense — a role carries more responsibilities than carrying the ball.
“I know that,” Foster said.