Arian Foster knows the questions are coming. He's seen it before.
A costly fumble equals scrutiny, which only furthers his reputation as a tailback with a loose handle.
Get it over with.
That's what Foster's eyes convey with a fleeting glance towards the lone reporter.
"When I fumble, it's amplified for whatever reason," the Tennessee tailback said when asked about his turnover in Monday's season-opening 27-24 loss to UCLA in overtime. "I think mainly it's the media. All anybody wants to talk about is the fumble."
But what about your 7.4-yard average against the Bruins or that 41-yard run?
"You say that after you ask me a question about the fumble," a still sullen Foster said. "You all (the media) dictate people's opinions a lot of the time."
Then the defenses are dropped.
"I guess I'm human, too," Foster says in a hardly audible voice.
The media isn't completely to blame for Foster's fumbling reputation. Cruel irony has played a major role. Many of his miscues have come at the most inopportune times.
There was the fumble in the Outback Bowl two seasons ago that was returned 88 yards for the decisive touchdown. In 2005, Foster fumbled stretching for the end zone in a late loss to South Carolina.
Last season, there was the botched handoff against Florida - only partially his fault - that resulted in a defensive touchdown just as the Vols had clawed back into the game. The Gators rolled.
There was another fumble late in a South Carolina game last year. Fortunately for Foster, that one was recovered by UT offensive lineman Jacques McClendon. The Vols prevailed, kicking a field goal later in the drive for the win.
The fumble against UCLA was a drive-killing turnover, just six yards from the end zone as the Vols appeared to be ready to take a 21-7 lead.
UT is 1-4 in those "fumble" games.
Yet Foster challenges anyone to check the stats before labeling him as a fumbler. And he's got a point.
In 284 touches (245 carries and 39 pass receptions) last season, Foster was charged with only three fumbles and recovered two. McClendon recovered the other.
Foster was not charged for the botched handoff against Florida. Even if you count the Florida mishap against him, that's a fumble for every 71 touches or 1.4 percent of the time.
If you don't count the Florida miscue, that's one fumble for every 95 touches.
Yet those stats - or what they represent - are most often what Foster is remembered for, not the fact that he's only 588 yards from becoming UT's all-time leading rusher.
One would think that Foster could alter his perception by reaching such a distinction.
"I can't erase anything in anybody's minds," he said. "I can't change people's perceptions of me."
In the wake of the loss to UCLA, the knee-jerk reaction among many fans was to elevate junior tailback Montario Hardesty to starter above Foster.
After a long list of leg injuries, Hardesty looked stronger and quicker than ever against the Bruins, rushing for 66 yards on 12 carries for a 5.5-yard average and two touchdowns.
"The way I look at it, I have two starters," first-year running backs coach Stan Drayton said. "In a perfect world, those reps are going to be evenly distributed.
Drayton, who described the competition between the two tailbacks as "neck-and-neck", said a lack of preseason contact could have contributed to Foster's most recent turnover. Foster missed much of preseason camp with a bone bruise in his knee.
Drayton admitted that Foster's elbow was a "little loose" when he lost the ball against UCLA. Yet the slip up in technique was far from Foster's shortcomings as an underclassman.
UT coach Phillip Fulmer readily commends Foster for his improvement since his freshman and sophomore season. Still, he said there is room for improvement.
"The reality is he has a ball security problem and not a fumbling problem," Fulmer said. "If you play running back, you're going to have a fumble every now and then.
"Hopefully not too many and hopefully not untimely like that one (against UCLA).
"I'm not defending him. It never should have happened. Never should have happened.
"But since his sophomore year he really hasn't had a lot of those in a game."
Hardesty isn't clamoring to be the starter, although he would gladly accept the role.
He certainly doesn't take pleasure in Foster fumbling just because it might provide some opportunity. In the fraternity of tailbacks, fumbling hurts, no matter the culprit.
Hardesty still grimaces as he recalls fumbling away a state championship during his sophomore year at New Bern (N.C.) High School.
Hardesty was returning a kickoff against powerhouse Independence High late in the fourth quarter and a 21-20 lead.
When the ball came loose, it seemed like slow motion.
When Independence won, it seemed like hell.
"If you don't get it back, it's just painful," Hardesty said. "That's my biggest fumble. I've been blessed not to fumble too many times in a game."
Message Board Mom
Arian Foster's mother has never fumbled a football, but she knows the pain associated with such a miscue.
Curiosity first led Bernadette Foster to Internet message boards when her son was being recruited by several colleges from coast to coast.
Now, the poster known as Fostermom fashions herself as an advocate for college athletes.
Bernadette was at her strongest shortly after the UCLA loss when infamous UT booster Roy Adams drew her ire.
Adams, known as Tennstud, pointed out Arian's fumble as a key play in the loss.
Bernadette tore into Adams with a message board post, claiming Adams was only about wooing athletes with gifts and money. Despite the attack, Bernadette insists she was never angry.
"The story behind me and Roy goes back a little further than that (post)," Bernadette said. "That was just the last straw as far as he and I were concerned.
"Had I gone off on him, there was plenty of other material that I could have addressed from an angry standpoint. But I didn't because I wasn't angry.
"That's all that I'm going to say about Roy."
Angry or not, Bernadette knows how tough a time this is for her son.
"At times like these," she said, "he has to work really hard to keep his attitude positive, has to work hard to keep his attitude right."
Former UT teammate Inky Johnson was one of the first to approach Foster following his turnover Monday.
"He told me he was alright but at the same time I knew that it bothered him," Johnson said.
As one of UT's spiritual leaders, Johnson's advice is always well received.
Johnson knows the pain associated with a major mistake in a big ball game. Before suffering a devastating arm injury in 2006 that ended his football career, Johnson was a lockdown cornerback.
Yet Johnson knew that one play could change the way he was perceived. A cornerback giving up a big pass play and a tailback losing an untimely fumble can be remembered in much the same way.
"I can relate to that," Johnson said. "If things happen at the wrong moment, the fans are not going to remember all the good things that happened in the game."
Following the UCLA game, Johnson felt so bad for Foster that he sought him out again. The two visited for 30 minutes outside the team hotel.
"Mistakes are going to be made," Johnson recalled telling Foster. "It's not the mistakes that are made but how you respond to the mistakes that are made."
The Goal: Perfection
The public criticism hurts, but Foster's toughest critic lines up in his cleats every day in practice.
There's a reason why Foster is climbing UT's all-time rushing chart. He might not be the most gifted tailback in UT history with names like Travis Henry, James Stewart, Johnnie Jones, Jamal Lewis, Cedric Houston and Jay Graham still ahead of him, but it would be hard to find one that better maximized their talent.
That comes from being a perfectionist.
"Even though he doesn't fumble a lot, he holds himself to high expectations that when he does fumble it bothers him a lot and messes with him," Johnson said.
When it comes to ball security, the fine-tuning is up to Drayton, who has already diagnosed the problem. Foster's elbow tends to leave his body in order to maintain his balance just as he's making a cut.
"We can't accept that," Drayton said. "The ball is a threat to come out at any given time if any running back carries the football like that."
So Drayton said he already has drills in place to work on the problem.
Therein lies the challenge.
Drayton is one of the first to point out that making too much of an occasional fumble can actually make matters much worse.
No individual at UT wants to go from a tailback who rarely fumbles to a tailback that runs tentatively because he's obsessed with not fumbling.
"You definitely don't want him scared to carry the football in a game situation," Drayton said.
That doesn't seem likely with Foster, no matter the media or fan criticism.
"Nobody likes to see themselves in a negative light, especially when you put everything you have into something," he said. "It's going to hurt but I take it for what it is.
"(Criticism) is not going to make me and it's not going to break me. I put my heart out there every time I touch the field.
"Nobody can say I don't."