Who'll be the Vols' tailback?

Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer entered spring practice wondering what kind of ground game the Vols will have in 2006. Five weeks later he's still wondering.

With Arian Foster, Montario Hardesty and LaMarcus Coker sidelined by injuries all spring, Fulmer didn't get to view his team's top three tailback candidates. Instead, he watched walk-on David Yancey, converted defensive back Ricardo Kemp and injury-plagued JaKouri Williams handle the running chores all spring.

So, Fulmer doesn't know a whole lot more about the state of the running attack than he did when spring practice began a month ago. He won't get a real gauge on where the ground game stands until two-a-days start in August.

"We'll know a lot more about ourselves at running back once we get all those guys back," Fulmer said. "We'd have a hard time competing right now with the guys that are out there. We've got a lot of work to do from that standpoint."

Foster is the odds-on favorite to win the No. 1 tailback spot. He held that job the last five games of 2005, amassing 879 yards and a solid 4.8 yards-per-carry average. He has had ankle and shoulder operations since the season ended, however.

"I was real encouraged by the way Arian finished the season but he's had two big surgeries," Fulmer said. "He looks like he's going to be fine and the trainers say he's ahead of schedule. That's a plus, but how ready will he really be?"

Hardesty had the coaching staff buzzing last August but a series of nagging injuries limited him to six carries for 18 yards during the 2005 season. Coker also struggled with a string of minor injuries and wound up redshirting.

"Before Montario Hardesty got hurt, we all thought he was going to be a really good prospect for us," Fulmer said. "And LaMarcus Coker seems to have matured quite a bit from last year. Even during the year there was discussion about playing him."

Until Foster, Hardesty and Coker can show how much they've been affected by their respective layoffs, Fulmer can't shed a whole lot of light on the tailback position.

"That is an unknown right now," he said. "David Yancey will give you everything he's got. He's a good hand to have out there, and if you had to do that I wouldn't be embarrassed to do it. But I need some game-changing guys."

Clearly, the head man considers Foster, Hardesty and Coker potential "game-changing guys." He's hopeful all will be cleared for practice when preseason camp opens in early August.

"It's crucial for us to get everybody back healthy," Fulmer told fans attending the Big Orange Caravan's Memphis stop. "I can't tell you now how we'll be able to run the ball. If this spring is any indication, we've got a lot of work to do. We didn't have anybody at spring practice who could break a tackle."

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