BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – In a year when just about every top junior running back decided to turn pro, nobody would have blamed Tennessee's Arian Foster if he had joined the exodus.
Foster grew up in financial hardship in San Diego and could have changed his standard of living with the stroke of a pen had he chosen to leave school. The NFL Draft Advisory Board projected Foster as a second-round pick.
MOVING UP THE CHARTS
Tennessee senior Arian Foster has an excellent chance to end his career as the Volunteers' all-time leading rusher. Here's a list of the top 10 career rushers in Tennessee history.
"I didn't think we had a chance in heck of keeping him at Tennessee," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said Thursday at SEC Media Days at the Wynfrey Hotel.
Foster instead returned for his senior season and now has a legitimate chance to end his career as Tennessee's leading career rusher. Foster has run for 2,394 yards, which puts him 684 shy of Travis Henry's school record.
Chasing the record isn't what motivated Foster, who says he doesn't focus on personal glory. Foster stuck around because he sensed this was a special team capable of achieving big things.
"I was very close," Foster said. "I had a lot of nights where I didn't sleep. Growing up, you have financial struggles, and (when) you have an opportunity to help your family out, it's hard to turn that down. But I felt like one more year would do me and my family a lot more justice."
He now has a chance to end his college career as the most prolific rusher at a school known for producing such notable running backs as Henry, Jamal Lewis, James Stewart and Reggie Cobb. Not bad for someone who hasn't earned postseason first-team all-SEC honors.
"I think Arian has stayed under the radar, has been underappreciated a bit," Fulmer said.
Foster hasn't received much acclaim because he doesn't deliver the highlight-worthy plays that Georgia's Knowshon Moreno and Florida's Percy Harvin make just about every week. But he makes up for his lack of explosiveness with an all-around game that expands every year. For instance, Foster had 39 receptions last season after catching a total of 25 passes his first two seasons at UT.
"That's kind of the rap on him, (that) he's not a game-breaker guy," Fulmer said. "He's going to make the first guy miss. He's going to fall forward most of the time. He's going to be a threat as a receiver. He can protect. You can split him out and use him that way. He's a really, really good football player."
Foster has been so underrated over the years that he admits that the NFL really didn't even enter his mind as he began his junior season. He was too busy concentrating on bouncing back from an injury-riddled sophomore campaign.
"The whole season, I wasn't even thinking about the next level," Foster said. "I didn't even think I was in the radar of the next level. My whole feeling was to get back on the radar."
Not only is he on the radar of NFL scouts, he slowly is starting to receive the publicity that has eluded him for much of his career. SEC coaches selected Foster and Moreno as their preseason first-team all-conference running backs. Foster even has heard some people mention him as a sleeper for the Heisman Trophy.
"I laughed at that," Foster said. "That's kind of funny. I appreciate the respect they have for me, but I think preseason hype means zero. It's an honor that they view me in that light. I heard I was preseason All-SEC. That's nice, but I just take it with a grain of salt because it's just paper. I have to go out and perform. We have to go out and perform."
Alabama coach Nick Saban was halfway through his news conference when he issued the following statement: "You guys use that word 'expectations' a lot. And I try to minimize it a lot."
But he's going to have a tough time minimizing expectations of a freshman class that's the best in the country. The class is headlined by wide receiver Julio Jones, the No. 4 overall prospect in the nation.
Saban declined to say how many freshmen could play this season, though he said he would play the best performers regardless of their class. "I think all these guys will be different," he said. "I think all these guys will develop at a different pace relative to their maturity, maybe their ability to learn and be confident in what they do."
No matter how much Saban tried to lower expectations for the freshman class, senior center Antoine Caldwell said he wouldn't be surprised if several of them played immediately and singled out Jones as one potential impact performer.
"What they bring to the table pushes people enough that it raises everybody's level of play," Caldwell said. "I haven't felt this good about a group that came in in a long time. I hope we can compete for the SEC West this year. I think we will compete for the SEC West this year. But even if it's not when I'm here, those guys that just came are going to get it done. There's too much talent that's going to be on the field at one time not to be able to (do it)."
Less is more for Oher
Ole Miss offensive tackle Michael Oher enters his senior season as a likely first-round pick, but that hasn't stopped him from making some changes to his game.
After weighing 327 pounds in January, Oher has slimmed down to 312. He said the weight loss has made him much quicker. "I feel like I can run all day," said Oher, who decided to enter the NFL Draft before changing his mind.
Oher's teammates have noticed the change.
"I've never seen a big guy so quick," senior defensive tackle Peria Jerry said. "I look more at defensive players being quick and fast, but he can do a lot of things. He's slimmed up a lot. He lost a few pounds, and he's just quick. He's tremendously quick."
He'll wait for the film
Oher earned plenty of national attention for his role as the central character of "The Blind Side," a book written by Michael Lewis about the growing importance of the left tackle position.
The book has earned plenty of acclaim since its 2006 release, but one person who says he hasn't read it is Oher. "If a movie comes out, I'll go watch it," he said.
He can't argue with that
Saban didn't have much of a complaint about LSU coach Les Miles' recent remark to a booster group that "it seems like a lot of teams in Louisiana beat (Alabama)," a thinly veiled reference to the Crimson Tide's 21-14 loss to Louisiana-Monroe last season.
"He told the truth," Saban said. "He told it like it was."
Saban then quoted from the movie "Saving Private Ryan" while pointing out that Alabama would have to regain respect from the rest of the nation.
"Tom Hanks says, 'Earn this,' " Saban said. "We need to earn the respect. We need to earn it. So that's what we need to do. That's what we'll work to do. That's what we're trying to do."
Is Powe a go?
Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt had no update on the status of defensive tackle Jerrell Powe, a former five-star prospect. Rivals.com rated Powe as the No. 24 overall prospect in the 2005 recruiting class, but he hasn't played a down for the Rebels while trying to gain his eligibility
"We're still waiting, just like y'all," Nutt said. "Hopefully (he'll play). I'm anxious to see if this guy can play. I've been told that he can. I don't know. But I'm like everybody else. We're just waiting."
Georgia has legitimate Heisman Trophy contenders in Moreno and quarterback Matthew Stafford, but Bulldogs coach Mark Richt isn't ready to declare them the most talented duo he has tutored.
"Charlie Ward and Warrick Dunn was a pretty great tandem, no doubt," said Richt, a former Florida State offensive coordinator. "These guys, I don't know if they rival that or not. When you look at the production of Charlie and Warrick together, it's pretty outstanding, pretty spectacular. Will they be as productive as those two? I don't know."
That didn't stop Moreno and Stafford's teammates from singing their praises. Georgia wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi even called Stafford the best quarterback in the country.
Nutt tried to downplay the Rebels' Oct. 25 game at Arkansas as much as possible, though the former Razorbacks coach admitted that it wouldn't be an ordinary road trip. Nutt was 75-48, won at least a share of three SEC West titles and reached two SEC Championship Games in 10 seasons at Arkansas before leaving for Ole Miss.
"You can't help but think about it," Nutt said. "You grew up in Arkansas. You thought at one time you'd be there for life. I had 10 great years of experience there working with some great people. We won three titles. Two of them went to Atlanta. We were very close against Florida (in 2006) to winning that ballgame. So we had some great days, great times there. You can't help but think what it's going to be like coming in from the visitor side. But quickly my mind goes back to (the Aug. 30 season opener against) Memphis."
Ole Miss players say Nutt already has changed the attitude. Jerry said this season's team has developed into much more of a family.
"After practice (last season), you'd probably not see another guy until the next day unless you got him in class," Jerry said. "Now we've got a game room, and everybody kind of hangs out after practice playing games, hanging around and chit-chatting with each other."
Second time around
Alabama battled inconsistency for much of the 2007 season on its way to a 7-6 finish, but the Tide believe they can get over those problems now that they've had a year to adjust to Saban.
"We didn't know what to expect (last year)," Caldwell said. "We'd been hearing so much about him. Going into this year, everyone is just a lot more comfortable. Not just the players, but the staff. Trainers, equipment managers – everybody.
"Everybody knows what to expect out of him. I think that's been the biggest difference and why we've made so much progress this summer and in the offseason."
Saban's track record offers mixed results on how a team might react in his second year. The Miami Dolphins slumped to 6-10 in Saban's second season after going 9-7 in his first season, but LSU went 8-4 in Saban's first season and 10-3 the following season.
"I think there are a lot of things that contribute to trying to get players to play with more confidence," Saban said. "But having a better understanding of what they're supposed to do, how they're supposed to do it and why it's important to do it that way probably contributes to it as much as anything. And I think the longer they're in the same system, the better chance you have to develop that."