Searching For UT's Next Great Tailback

Tennessee has four current players that were ranked in the nation's top 10 running backs coming out of their respective recruiting classes, but none has yet to rush for a 1,000 yards in a single season during their combined 15 years at UT.

Contrast that four-year span without a four-figure tailback to the prior nine years under Phillip Fulmer in which the Vols had six different backs breach the 1,000-yard barrier. That group included Charlie Garner (1,161 yards in 1993), James Stewart (1,028 yards in 1994), Jay Graham (1,438 yards in 1995), Jamal Lewis (1,364 yards in 1997), Travis Henry (1,314 in 2000) and Travis Stephens (1,464 yards in 2001). Two years is the longest the Vols have gone without a 1,000-yard rusher since Johnny Jones became the first UT back to achieve the feat in 1983.

Cedric Houston needs 287 yards in the last two games to reach 1,000 yards for his senior season. He came to Tennessee in 2000 ranked the nation's No. 8 running back behind the Georgia duo of Jabari Davis, who was the nation's No. 2 back, and Derrick Tinsley, who was rated No. 5 nationally. They were joined the next season by Gerald Riggs Jr. who was ranked the nation's No. 3 in 2001.

When Houston has been healthy he's been productive, but Davis has seen his playing time shrink for three straight seasons while Riggs didn't earn a start until this year and has about 800 yards career rushing yards. Tinsley had problems with injuries and ball security that led to his transfer to wideout.

The failure of a big-time running back to emerge from a group of high-profile prospects underscores the frustration generated by UT's inconsistent running game the last three seasons. Generally, the tailbacks haven't lived up to expectations but the same can be said about the offensive line, wide receivers and fullbacks which all factor into the team's rushing attack. The Vols are making progress at those other positions and they are in the hunt for their next great Tennessee tailback.

The Vols have already received a commitment from the nation's No. 2 rated tailback, LaMarcus Coker, of Antioch, Tenn. The 5-foot-11, 195-pound, five-star tailback has blazing speed and dazzling open-field running skills. He has been timed at 4.26 in the 40 at a Nike Camp. After rushing for 1293 yards and 14 touchdowns as a junior, Coker had 450 yards and seven TDs as a senior in only 32 carries before a torn hamstring sent him to the sideline. He's expected to make a full recovery and should be ready to compete for playing time next fall. Coker brings an explosiveness to the position the Vols haven't had since Charlie Garner or Jay Graham.

With Coker on board, the Vols are in hot pursuit of No. 1 rated running back Jonathan Stewart of Timberline High School in Olympia, Wa. The powerful 5-11, 218-pound five-star tailback has broke the Washington state high school career rushing mark with 7,081 yards in 673 carries. He has scored 86 touchdowns. As a senior Stewart has run the ball 140 times for 1,627 yards and 23 touchdowns. He was recently named to U.S. Army All-American team and will play in the Jan. 15 all-star game in San Antonio.

With a 4.52 time in the 40, Stewart doesn't have Coker's speed but he has outstanding strength (350-pound bench press and 575-pound squat) and incredible balance. The player known as "Snoop" has averaged nearly 11 yards per carry throughout his career.

At first the Vols appeared to be no more than a fringe contender for Stewart's services given the distance between Olympia and Knoxville. But Tennessee has gained traction in recent weeks and will get an official visit from the nation's top-rated back on Dec. 12. He visited Washington State on Oct. 29 and will be at USC this weekend. He has no other visits planned at this point. Other school of interest include: Arizona, Arizona State, California, Florida, Nebraska, Oregon, Oregon State and Washington.

The third five-star tailback Tennessee is actively pursuing is Touchdown Toney Baker of Lucy Ragsdale High School in Jamestown, N.C. At 5-10, 218 with 4.45 speed Baker has that lethal combination of size, speed and strength. He rushed for 3,411 yards as a junior and broke the North Carolina state rushing record as a senior running his four-year total to 9,286 with a 284-yard outing. Even stronger than Stewart, Baker boasts a 420-pound bench press and a 33-inch vertical leap.

Baker, who was also selected a U.S. Army All-American, is considering North Carolina, North Carolina State, Tennessee, Virginia and Virginia Tech. He has yet to schedule any official visits but has taken unofficial visits to Virginia and N.C. State.

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