Frosh backs could have impact

The University of Tennessee football team has three tailbacks who have started at least four games at the collegiate level. That's is a significant positive, but there's a negative attached to it.

Junior Arian Foster has 10 career starts. Montario Hardesty has five and fellow sophomore LaMarcus Coker four. They know how to deal with the pressure and responsibility of starting, which should help them considerably in 2007.

"I think it's obviously a positive ... the fact we have guys that do have that experience," running backs coach Kurt Roper conceded.

Unfortunately for Tennessee, the reason the tailback starts have been spread so evenly among three guys is that none of them could stay healthy long enough to keep the job for very long in 2006.

"It's a physical position in the SEC to be a running back, and we weren't able to stay healthy last year," Roper noted. "We had Arian get hurt (ankle), we had Coker get hurt (ankle) and we had Montario battling injuries all year long. We're fortunate to have a good number of guys because it's hard to stay injury-free all year."

Because injuries are so prevalent among running backs, there is a chance that one of Tennessee's heralded freshmen could get in the backfield mix this fall. Lennon Creer, a 6-1, 205-pounder from Tatum, Texas, may have the best chance, simply because he has better size than fellow rookies Dennis Rogan (5-10, 182) and Daryl Vereen (6-0, 195).

Roper is not averse to playing young guys if they're physically and mentally ready to contribute.

"I tell the guys all the time: I'm not concerned about age," the Vol aide said. "I'm concerned about production."

So what must a freshman do to crack the playing rotation at tailback?

"Just like we tell 'em in recruiting: Their opportunities are going to happen during these 29 practices before we play a game," Roper said. "Their ability to learn the offense, to be productive and obviously to protect the quarterback in passing situations can earn them the opportunity to play."

One key for the freshman tailbacks is patience. They must recognize when to simply take a two-yard loss rather than reverse field and risk suffering a 10-yard loss. That's a big step in the learning process.

"You need good eyes and good vision," Roper said. "You have to know what you're looking at to make good decisions."

Roper, offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe and head coach Phillip Fulmer will closely monitor the freshman tailbacks during preseason scrimmages to see if any of the three is ready to provide immediate help.

"It goes back to three principles," Roper said. "If they know what to do, how to do it and they make more plays than everybody else, then they'll earn the opportunity to play."

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