Montario Hardesty: Differences betwween Fulmer's Vols and Kiffin's Vols
In the final two games of the 2008 season, the Vols rushed a combined 104 times. And it just so happened they won those two games - Kentucky and Vanderbilt - by a combined 28 points.
If there's anything to feel good about on offense from a year ago, it's that Tennessee managed to be somewhat effective running the ball even while finishing 115th in the country in total offense.
Heading into this season, the Vols have plenty of talent at tailback - and a new zone blocking scheme embraced by both offensive linemen and running backs. They also have the nation's No. 1 overall recruit, according to Rivals.com, on campus and ready to contribute in Bryce Brown.
"When you walk by Bryce and (see) his presence, he looks like the real deal," UT coach Lane Kiffin said. "He's 218 pounds right now, and he looks like a guy who has been in the NFL for a few years.
"Bryce is built up so well. He's got that superstar walk and presence to him. There's a lot to that."
There's also a lot to the impression Brown has made on All-American safety Eric Berry.
"Bryce Brown is definitely a mature guy," says Berry. "He's got his goals set in mind as far as what he wants to do."
And Berry, who has started every game of his UT career beginning with the 2007 season opener at California, knows something about maturity.
Brown, like Berry, will likely be expected to contribute right from the beginning. Fellow freshman David Oku, rated the nation's top all-purpose back by Rivals.com, will also get a chance to show what he can do early in fall camp as well.
From what Berry's seen in offseason workouts, Oku should prove an asset as well.
"He's a little lightning bolt," Berry said. "He has good moves, very good at catching the ball. Picks up on plays very quickly. He's already pretty much grasped the playbook. He's a special player."
But Oku and Brown aren't the only players in the backfield this fall.
Senior Montario Hardesty, who led the Vols with six touchdowns last fall, is one of the Vols' biggest leaders on offense. He's also a bruising runner who has good speed in the open field.
Behind Hardesty is Tauren Poole, who rushed for 86 yards last season but had an impressive spring practice.
"We have a nice group of running backs," said Hardesty, who has spent time teaching Brown and Oku the playbook this summer. "I think everybody's working hard, man. Tauren Poole has been working hard since he got here. I think we got a nice group with me and Tauren and the two freshmen guys coming in. I think we have a good group of guys."
They're also a comfortable group of guys, Hardesty said.
"That was a good sign from spring. We got better and better running the ball," he said. "Even to come out in the first day in a new scheme, we were running the ball a lot better than we were at any point last year. It's definitely good signs that our running game is coming along good."
That's good news for the Vols on offense.
Given the Vols' struggles in the passing game last fall and injuries to three of UT's top wide receivers this offseason, the running game will be vital this fall.
And while much of the focus has been on Brown and Oku this offseason, the Vols have enough contributors even after true freshman Toney Williams tore his anterior cruciate knee ligament in voluntary workouts and Lennon Creer left the program.
The momentum from spring has Hardesty looking for big things this fall.
"It's a little bit of scheme. It's a little more energy. It's guys knowing what to do better, knowing their assignments more," he says. "It's just a little bit of everything. Guys being more motivated from going 5-7 to practice harder.
"Whatever it was, I think as a whole the offense played a lot better in the spring than we did in the season at any point last year."