Backs will be busy

Given Tennessee's inexperience at wide receiver, it's a safe bet that Vol tailbacks will be doing more running this year. And, given that same inexperience, the tailbacks may be doing more receiving, too.

Oddly enough, the Vols' returning tailbacks actually caught more passes last fall than their returning receivers did.

LaMarcus Coker reeled in 13 passes for 168 yards and a touchdown. Arian Foster hauled in 11 for 88 yards. Montario Hardesty caught six for 54 yards. All told, the three returning tailbacks combined for 30 receptions, 210 receiving yards and one receiving touchdown.

By comparison, the returning wideouts combined for just 26 receptions in 2006. The breakdown is as follows: Lucas Taylor (14), Austin Rogers (5), Josh Briscoe (5) and Quintin Hancock (2). Moreover, the quartet did not produce a receiving touchdown among them.

Given that Tennessee has considerable experience at tailback and virtually no experience at wide receiver, it's entirely possible that Vol quarterbacks could send a lot of throws the tailbacks' way this fall.

"If the read tells the quarterback to lay it off to them, obviously, they are playmakers who can catch the football," running backs coach Kurt Roper said recently. "Arian probably has the most natural hands but all of them can catch the ball well out of the backfield. They did a good job on screens last year."

Foster, coming off an injury-plagued sophomore season in 2006, appears ready to bounce back in a big way. He showed nice vision and a quick burst in the Vols' first spring scrimmage, finishing with 98 yards on 19 carries. Hardesty was sidelined by injury but Coker looked really good, as well, carrying eight times for 60 yards before suffering bruised ribs.

"He's a playmaker," Roper said of Coker. "When he gets in space, he's tough to tackle. He finished some runs. Even the one where he got banged up a little his pads were down and he was trying to finish a run."

Tennessee broke with tradition last fall by throwing more than it ran. The '06 Vols finished with 415 passing attempts and just 382 rushing attempts. Moreover, they gained 3,438 yards passing and just 1,404 rushing. In other words, 52 percent of Tennessee's plays were passes and 71 percent of its yardage came via the air.

Head coach Phillip Fulmer and offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe insist things will be different in 2007. They are determined that Tennessee's attack will be much more balanced this fall than it was last fall. That means the tailbacks will carry a significantly bigger share of the load in '07 than they did in '06.

The key question: Are they ready for bigger roles? Roper thinks so. He says the tailback outlook for the coming season is bright.

"I think it's positive," he said. "They're competing hard, giving great effort. They are playmakers. I think they're trying to take this thing very seriously with what they're doing."


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