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Inside the running backs
- Stan Drayton
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
- Tailbacks: Arian Foster (Montario Hardesty, Lennon Creer, Tauren Poole).
- Fullbacks: Kevin Cooper (Austin Johnson).
WATCH OUT FOR
- Creer, who led all backs with 5.9 yards per carry last season and could be the Vols’ most explosive threat.
- Foster enters his senior season needing 684 yards to pass Travis Henry as UT’s all-time leading rusher.
During spring practice, Tennessee looked like it was searching for a running back.
Younger players took the majority of snaps and absorbed the majority of hits.
But the Vols are plenty deep at tailback. And plenty proven.
Senior Arian Foster joins Jamal Lewis and Gerald Riggs as the only backs since 1998 to return following 1,000-yard seasons.
Last season, Foster nearly doubled his career rushing total and bounced back from a sluggish sophomore year with 1,193 yards on the ground.
But Foster isn't just a runner. He's an effective receiver out of the backfield, catching 39 passes for 340 yards and two touchdowns in 2007, and he has often been praised for his pass-protection skills.
"He's a guy that can run the football," offensive coordinator Dave Clawson said. "I think one of Arian's real strengths is what he does without the football as far as his ability to protect, his ability to run routes, and to me he's been a very quick learner with the offense."
Clawson is Foster's third offensive coordinator in four years at Tennessee, but he tackled the new offense in limited carries and emerged from spring practice as the clear starter.
Sophomore Lennon Creer, who rushed for 214 yards last season, and true freshman Tauren Poole took the bulk of snaps at running back in spring partly to keep Foster fresh for the fall. All those snaps in spring practice, though, could pay dividends down the road.
"A bunch of guys who were in high school a year ago that have gotten a ton of reps this spring," Clawson said. "At times it's been a painful process because they're out there for the first time in spring practice, and in a new offense, but I think their growth is something that's really going to help us as we move forward here."
Montario Hardesty, UT's second-leading rusher in 2007 with 373 yards, wants to move forward, too.
The promising junior missed most of spring practice with a lower-leg stress fracture, the latest in a string of injury-related setbacks throughout his career.
When healthy, Hardesty is an explosive, tough runner. And heading into the start of fall camp, the junior said he feels good.
"I wouldn't say it's the best I've felt, but it's as good as I've felt," he said. "I feel fast, I feel strong and everything like that. I just need to stay healthy all this year so I can be on the field and show you what I mean when I say I feel good."
If Hardesty remains healthy - admittedly a pretty big if - the Vols have a versatile backfield that can blend speed and power, along with viable threats in the passing game.
"Our goal coming from the spring is to be the best backfield in the country," Hardesty says. "I think we can do that with the people we've got. We've got all kinds of different runners, different weapons."
At fullback, which should make a comeback in UT's offense with Clawson calling plays, the Vols got productive work from sophomore Kevin Cooper and true freshman Austin Johnson. Senior David Holbert likely won't be a factor after suffering a traumatic knee injury early in spring practice.
But Foster, who needs just 684 yards to break Travis Henry's career rushing record, should be the focal point in the backfield both for Clawson's diverse play-calling and opposing defenses.
"Arian Foster, he's not a young guy," Clawson said. "He's the most proven commodity that we have back there."
Drew Edwards covers University of Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274.