Few expected Tennessee tailback Montario Hardesty to lead the SEC in rushing a month into the season. Teammate David Oku is downright astounded.
“I don’t know if we can curse or not,” the freshman tailback told reporters Wednesday. “But I’m sure surprised. For a man to go through three knee surgeries, that is a helluva guy to be doing something like this still. Most people would give up. I ask him everyday ‘How the hell do you do it?’ ”
Hardesty continues to do it while battling persistent health issues. A sore shoulder slowed him last week, yet he still rushed for 140 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries against Ohio.
He had his knee drained early this week and was limited in practice but expects to play Saturday against Auburn.
Hardesty is tops in the SEC with 121.25 rushing yards per game. That’s good for ninth best in the country for the senior who was known more for injuries than carries before this season.
“I don’t think I should get all the credit for that,” Hardesty of his production this season. “I can’t do anything I’ve been doing without my o-line blocking, the receivers blocking downfield and the coach having confidence to give me the ball.
“I’m just out there trying to do my part of the job to help my team win.”
Hardesty’s ascension means less carries for his backfield mates. He has 84 carries this season. Highly touted freshmen Bryce Brown and Oku have 43 and 8, respectively. Despite a strong off-season, sophomore Tauren Poole has five carries.
The Vols’ offensive intentions are clear: ride Hardesty, who is averaging 5.8 yards per carry.
Oku isn’t complaining. He has caught two passes for 13 yards and returned 10 kickoffs for an 18.7-yard average this season.
“I love my role,” he said. “My role is a good role. The role that you get, you have to accept and made the best of it. Not too many people get the opportunity to play right off the bat.”
Brown has proven himself a worthy featured back this season. He has 215 yards and is averaging 5 yards per carry. Hardesty has been there for Brown every step of the way.
“I’ve learned a lot,” Brown said. “Just the way that he carries himself, the way he stays calm, his leadership by example (and) vocally.”
UT coach Lane Kiffin said he was again impressed with Hardesty last week when he didn’t complain after three carries in the first half and was ready to go with 17 carries in the second.
“I love everything about him,” Kiffin said.
Wes’ World: Senior defensive tackle Wes Brown said his sore knees felt good on Monday, then there was an issue Tuesday when one of his knees gave out during a double-team drill.
UT’s coaches held Brown out last Saturday against Ohio.
“The coaches, that’s why they make the money,” Brown said. “They told me that they wanted me to sit that one out and get ready for Auburn.”
Brown was limited but practiced Wednesday.
Injury Report: Defensive end Chris Walker (back) was very limited during Wednesday’s practice, Kiffin said. Linebacker Herman Lathers (head) and Wes Brown (knee) got some work.
“Tomorrow will be a big day for a lot of guys,” Kiffin said.
Offensive guard Vladimir Richard did not practice. Kiffin said he didn’t look very good, adding he expected to play the same offensive line UT played last Saturday, which would be without Richard.
Center Josh McNeil said he’s ready to play after two weeks of practice. The senior was originally told he would likely be out for the season after exploratory surgery on his knee revealed extensive damage, which will require surgery.
McNeil, who has had severe knee and shoulder injuries, said he is roughly 75 percent of the player he was when he arrived at UT in 2005.
Last Word: Kiffin commended quarterback Jonathan Crompton and his receivers for their work in practice.