Roper responds

You know you've made the big time when you get criticized on talk radio and message boards. Apparently, Tennessee running backs coach Kurt Roper has made the big time.

Roper was roundly criticized by the more outspoken members of the Vol Nation following last Saturday's 41-17 loss at Alabama. His major transgressions were (1) failure to utilize reserve tailback Montario Hardesty and (2) use of freshman tailback Lennon Creer on a crucial third-down play that failed.

Hardesty had been impressive in rushing for a career-high 78 yards in a 33-21 Game 6 win at Mississippi State one week earlier. As a result, his non-use in Game 7 at Bama befuddled the player and fans alike.

Meeting with the media earlier today, Roper said the failure to use Hardesty at Tuscaloosa was "just one of those things" but that he understands the player's frustration.

"Is Montario happy about not playing? No, and he shouldn't be happy," Roper said. "He SHOULD'VE played. But the game was a little bit different football game."

The aide noted that Tennessee had just five first-half possessions, the last of which consisted of two plays – a pass completion and a 45-yard field attempt. By the time the Vols got their fourth possession of the second half they were trailing 38-17 and in full-blown passing mode.

"We had so few possessions in the first half," Roper said, "and the second half things changed pretty quick."

Hardesty reportedly was very angry following the game. He missed a Sunday evening practice but was not punished after explaining that he had a 102-degree temperature.

"I'm OK with him being unhappy," Roper said. "What he has to do now is go back to work and work hard. That's his mentality. Montario is a hard worker and a team-first guy."

One thing that worked against Hardesty last Saturday was the fact first-team tailback Arian Foster was having tremendous success. He led Tennessee in rushing yards (91 on 13 tries) and receiving yards (74 on four catches). Still, second-teamer LaMarcus Coker got five carries and fourth-teamer Lennon Creer got one carry.

Roper said the "thought process has been the same" in recent weeks – "to start Foster, with Coker the next guy off the bench, then go with Montario."

Coker was injured early in the Mississippi State contest, so Hardesty got a lot more snaps than usual.

"It became basically a two-man rotation in that game," Roper said.

One of last Saturday's turning points occurred late in the first half. Down 17-14, Tennessee faced a third-and-one situation at the Alabama 46-yard line. Vol fans were stunned when the ball was handed to Creer, who was stopped in his tracks for no gain. Tennessee punted the ball away on fourth down, and Bama promptly marched 75 yards to go up 24-14.

Many UT fans found Creer's presence in the lineup at such a crucial juncture somewhat mind-boggling. Roper says there was a very simple explanation.

"We had made the decision in that package to go with Lennon," the Vol aide said. "The first play Lennon actually was in was on the goal-line play where we scored a touchdown throwing it to Luke (Stocker). It was just a decision we had made ... when that package went in the game to put Lennon in the game."

Roper noted that Creer has good "take-off" and "gets to the line of scrimmage in a hurry."

When asked if Creer is the best fit for a short-yardage package, however, Roper shrugged.

"I don't know that any of them are the best fit," the Vol aide said, noting that Coker (the Vols' smallest back) was in the game on the two short-yardage situations Tennessee converted.

"To be honest, whoever is in the game is in the game," Roper said. "We put a package in to try to get Lennon more involved because he works hard. He runs hard and runs physical, so we were trying to use that package just to get him involved."

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