"There was a time when I was going to take him out of the ball game," running backs coach Stan Drayton recalled. "He looked me right in the face and said, 'No. Do not take me out. This is my play, and I'm going to get in the end zone.' Then he did exactly what he said he was going to do."
Indeed. With UT facing third-and-goal at the Tiger 2-yard line, Hardesty got the ball on a toss sweep, roared around left end and into the end zone, pulling the Vols within 14-12 on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Whereas some might view Hardesty's resistance as an act of insubordination, Drayton viewed it as an act of determination.
"That type of leadership and that type of emotion," the coach said, "is definitely necessary for this group right now."
Hardesty smiled when reminded of his brief act of defiance.
"I just had a five-yard carry; it was third-and-two and I wanted the ball," he recalled. "We had run a toss sweep a lot in practice, and Lennon (Creer) was doing pretty good on it. He (Drayton) was about to put Lennon in, so I told him I wanted the ball and I was going to score no matter what. He left me in there, and I scored."
Hardesty is rapidly establishing himself as Tennessee's go-to guy in the Red Zone. He has scored four of the Vols' seven rushing touchdowns this fall, even though he averages just 8.5 carries and 36.0 yards per game. A lot of tailbacks run faster but no one runs harder than Hardesty, a junior from New Bern, N.C., whose first three college seasons were wrecked by injuries.
"I'm just trying to do as much as possible to help our team get wins," he said. "I definitely have something to prove, and I still haven't proved that yet. At the same time, I think our team has something to prove. I just want people to see me at practice and in the games showing I give my all."
Because Tennessee's passing attack has been awful thus far, opponents are crowding the line of scrimmage to stop the run. Despite average size (6-0, 210 pounds), Hardesty has a punishing running style that works even against stacked defenses. Drayton describes him as a "physical runner" who "really wears on defenses as the game goes on."
Hardesty says seeing eight or nine defenders "in the box" doesn't bother him. If anything, it motivates him.
"That's the way a lot of games are going to start off," he said. "If we soften 'em up, then that may change a little."