Where was Coker?

After watching redshirt freshman tailback LaMarcus Coker rush for 146 yards on just eight carries in Game 4 vs. Marshall, many Tennessee fans were asking the same question: Why wasn't this guy playing earlier?

Offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe tackled that question this week.

"It was a combination of things," Cutcliffe said. "He hurt his wrist early on, then I think he had a hip flexor. He's in good shape now."

Coker appeared to be in terrific shape against Marshall. He was so spectacular, in fact, that he will start Saturday's game at Memphis ahead of Arian Foster (who started Games 1 and 2) and Montario Hardesty (who started Games 3 and 4).

"All of those guys are good backs," Cutcliffe said. "When Arian was the starter, Montario kind of worked himself into No. 2 based on scrimmage performances. When Arian gets hurt, Montario steps in."

Hardesty struggled in his two starts, rushing for 14 yards on 17 carries vs. Florida in Game 3 and 21 yards on eight carries in Game 4 vs. Marshall. That opened the door for Coker, who burst through it with his huge performance last Saturday.

"Obviously, what LaMarcus has done is take advantage of his opportunities," Cutcliffe said. "He's been exciting. So has Montario. We're not disappointed in Montario at all. We just think LaMarcus Coker has earned the opportunity to be the first guy out there right now."

Coker's 89-yard touchdown run vs. Marshall was the third-longest in school history. He showed nice vision, good cutting ability and tremendous acceleration on the play. His promotion to first-team was based on more than one run, however.

"He obviously can catch the ball well," Cutcliffe said. "He's made other runs. He's been explosive. He's displayed speed. He's displayed vision. He had a 23-yard run and a 15-yard run in addition to the 89-yard run. When he's gotten an opportunity he's provided a spark. Hopefully, he'll continue to do that."

Foster broke some big runs in 2005 but has been hampered by ankle problems in 2006. Hardesty is an exceptional power runner but may lack the acceleration to be a consistent home-run threat. Conversely, Coker has the burst to turn any play into a touchdown.

"He has speed, and there's no substitute for it," Cutcliffe noted. "That may allow us to do some things we haven't done. I knew he was fast but on that 89-yard run he showed some speed that I wasn't sure he had. He was outrunning a whole lot of people."

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