'Downhill' racer

Averaging just 3.8 yards through his first 202 rushing attempts as a Tennessee Vol, he is typecast as a guy who can get the tough yards but can't go the distance.

Suffice to say, Montario Hardesty went against type in the final full-scale scrimmage of the 2008 preseason Thursday at Neyland Stadium.

On his first carry he slammed into would-be tacklers much as a tornado slams into a coastal village, leveling everything in his path. He was hit four or five times before finally going down at the end of a 31-yard run.

Carry No. 2 was just as ferocious and almost as long. This time he bowled over three ill-fated tacklers en route to a 24-yard gain.

Carry No. 3 proved only a slight variation on the theme: He left still more would-tacklers sprawled on the turf at Shields-Watkins Field on his way to a 20-yard pickup.

Hardesty carried just once more the rest of the afternoon, burrowing up the middle for four yards to finish with 79 yards on four carries. When a guy averaging 3.8 yards per carry for his career averages 19.8 yards per carry, an obvious question arises:

What got into you, dude?

"I just wanted to come out and start off our offense," Hardesty said, grinning sheepishly. "This is our last scrimmage before we get to game time, and I wanted to get some good runs in."

He "got some good runs in," all right. The 6-0, 210-pound junior from New Bern, N.C., showed the combination of speed and power that made him one of Tennessee's top recruiting priorities as a high school senior four years ago. That, of course, was before an incredible rash of injuries reduced him to ... well, 3.8 yards per carry.

Now healthy and rested, Hardesty's performance on Thursday suggests he may be ready to scratch his potential at long last. Head coach Phillip Fulmer noted that second-team defenders were "bouncing off of him like ping-pong balls," adding:

"I was really proud of Montario. He came out to play. He hadn't had a whole lot of snaps during the course of camp, and we told him we were going to get him a good dose today."

Even slowed by injuries, Hardesty always ran hard. He just never seemed to make that first guy miss ... until Thursday. Seeing him break back-to-back-to-back runs of 20 yards or more was truly dumbfounding.

"That gets the offense going when we come out running like that," he said, flashing another big grin. "You can't really score getting three or four yards at a time. You need big chunks of yards, so I think it definitely gave the offense a little boost when the O-line started off like that."

Soft-spoken and team-oriented, Hardesty spent almost as much time discussing his mistakes as he spent discussing his achievements following the scrimmage.

"I messed up one blocking assignment, didn't stay behind my pads," he said. "I've got to get all of that stuff right before the games. That shows me what I've got to improve on, and we've only got 10 days to get there."

Hardesty, who seems to pack the power of a 250-pounder in a 210-pound frame, clearly locked up the No. 2 tailback job behind first-teamer Arian Foster with Thursday's awesome scrimmage showing.

"Montario's tough and he gets the ball going downhill," offensive coordinator Dave Clawson said. "He's physical. I think Arian and Montario are going to be a really solid 1-2 punch this year."


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