Backs to the future

Backs to the future

Neyland Stadium has a north end zone and a south end zone. All Tennessee offensive coordinator Jim Chaney demands is that Vol tailbacks spend most of their time running toward one of them.

The new zone running scheme Chaney is implementing essentially can be reduced to three steps: One, hit the hole. Two, make the cut. Three, get north and south immediately. Rising senior Montario Hardesty did an exceptional job of this during spring practice, which is why he's listed No. 1 on the post-spring depth chart.

"Montario has really done a fantastic job of learning what we're wanting out of him as a running back – doing one cut and getting the ball vertical," Chaney said recently. "He's done a fantastic job of that."

Hardesty, a 6-0, 215-pounder, runs with surprising power for his size. A good complement for his bruising style is shifty sophomore Tauren Poole, a 5-10, 203-pounder listed No. 2 on the depth chart. Poole carried 43 times in the three spring scrimmages and averaged a team-best 5.56 yards per carry.

"Tauren Poole has run the ball well in the scrimmages," Chaney said. "He led the team in yards per carry. I don't put a lot of stock into that but it sounds good and it's something to sell, so let's do it."

Williams, a 6-0, 218-pound mid-term freshman, did most of his running against second- and third-team defenders. Even taking into account the level of competition, he showed a surprising blend of speed and power – much like Hardesty – in spring scrimmages.

"Toney Williams is just a high school kid (in terms of age) but he's played very, very physical football for us," Chaney said. "We really like his opportunities here at Tennessee, and we're looking for great things from him."

In spite of the good work done by Hardesty, Poole and Williams during the spring, the pecking order at tailback is not carved in stone. In fact, there could be quite a shakeup when incoming freshmen Bryce Brown and David Oku join the competition in August.

Brown rushed for 1,872 yards and 30 touchdowns as a prep senior in Wichita, Kansas last fall, earning recognition as Scout.com's No. 1 overall prospect. Oku ran for 1,905 yards and 23 TDs last fall in Oklahoma City to qualify as Scout.com's No. 9 running back prospect.

No matter who's playing tailback for Tennessee this fall, he'll be running behind a pair of quality fullbacks. Junior Kevin Cooper (6-0, 245), the starter in 2008, is a pile-pushing battering ram in the mold of former Vol Roland Poles. Backup Austin Johnson, a 6-2, 234-pound sophomore, is an exceptional receiver in the mold of former Vol Troy Fleming.

"Kevin Cooper and Austin Johnson are learning to do a bunch of new things at the fullback position," Chaney said. "It's not all just power blocking. We're asking them to be a little more creative, see a little bit more of the field than maybe they've done in the past."

Without question, Tennessee has several weaknesses heading into preseason drills. Clearly, the running back positions are not among them.

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