A back for every occasion

Arian Foster has the versatility to hurt opponents who overplay the run on first down. LaMarcus Coker has the speed to burn foes who jam the middle on second down. Montario Hardesty has the power to get the tough yards on third down.

Clearly, Tennessee has a tailback for every occasion, which helps the Vols immensely. The problem is, playing each one on a situational basis helps the opposing defense anticipate what's coming. That's why Vol running backs coach Kurt Roper isn't a big believer in situational substitutions, even when he has a trio of proven tailbacks with an assortment of strengths.

"Right now I'm not being situational," Roper said. "Whoever's in the game is running the plays. We haven't put specific guys in there for specific plays. I think we have to be multi-faceted. Each one of them has to be able to do it all."

Roper's life was a lot simpler in September. Hardesty was injured, so Foster and Coker divided the carries on roughly a 60-40 basis. Hardesty complicated matters last Saturday, however, by coming off the bench to rush for 68 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries in a 35-14 upset of No. 12 Georgia. He is now listed No. 2 at tailback, behind Foster and ahead of Coker.

"It's good to get him back," Roper said of Hardesty. "He's obviously experienced and knows what to do. When he's feeling good he's a powerful back. He's really strong and has the ability to break some tackles and make some plays."

Hardesty, a 6-0, 205-pounder, has the leg drive to run well against stacked defenses. He rambled 10 yards for a touchdown vs. Georgia and popped a third-and-one play for another 10-yard gain. Asked if Hardesty could be a third-down back, Roper replied: "He can be. He's obviously a physical guy, and that was a good situation for him to be in."

Foster, a 6-1, 225-pounder, can be a physical guy, too. And, while he's known for his burst and not his brawn, the 5-11, 195-pound Coker has some power, as well.

"Coker has the same type ability to break some tackles," Roper noted, "although he's not as big as the other two."

Given the intense competition for carries among UT's tailbacks, guys who don't break tackles don't play, especially in short-yardage and goal-line situations.

"On short yardage there's going to be somebody unblocked," Roper said. "You can't block 'em all, so we've got to make somebody miss to get that first down in short-yardage."

After struggling with short-yardage situations in Games 1 through 4, Tennessee converted on four of four opportunities last Saturday vs. Georgia. Here's a recap:

Third and 2: Foster gains nine yards

Third and 1: Foster gets 22 yards and a touchdown

Third and 2: Foster runs for eight yards

Third and 1: Hardesty picks up 10 yards

Part of the improved third-and-short efficiency was some quality blocking from the fullback position. Instead of going to a shotgun formation and emptying the backfield – as Tennessee did in some earlier games – the Vols placed H-back Chris Brown at fullback. His work as a lead blocker helped spring Foster and Hardesty for nice gains.

"He's doing a good job," Roper said of Brown. "He's somebody we use in multiple positions, and he's embraced it really well. He's a playmaker. He's somebody you really count on and lean on as a leader and a playmaker."


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