Movin' the chains

Second-team tailback Montario Hardesty, who got more carries (6) than any other Tennessee player last Saturday vs. Georgia, is averaging just 3.9 yards per carry heading into tonight's 7 o'clock kickoff vs. Mississippi State.

First-teamer Arian Foster, who started vs. Georgia but got just three carries, is averaging 5.0 yards per carry.

Third-teamer Lennon Creer, who got two carries vs. Georgia and none the week before vs. Northern Illinois, is averaging a whopping 7.9 yards per carry, albeit against mostly second-tier competition.

Stan Drayton, the Vol running backs coach, is aware of the per-carry marks but not terribly influenced by them. First downs are a lot more important to him than individual statistics.

"We want to stay on schedule," Drayton said earlier this week. "We want at least four or five yards on first down, at least half of what's left on second down. We want to convert all third downs.

"Obviously, at the end of the year I would love to have individuals over six yards per carry. But if we're winning ball games and staying on schedule, regardless of the yards-per-carry average, we're in good shape."

Each of the three tailbacks has strengths that make him effective on certain plays and less effective on others. Hardesty, for instance, is a second-effort runner who generally does well in short-yardage situations. Foster is an outstanding receiver out of the backfield. Creer is a breakaway threat.

Obviously, having the right back on the field in the right circumstance can be crucial to a play's success ... or lack thereof. Thus, Tennessee uses something of a situational rotation at tailback.

"Some guys do some things better," Drayton said. "One thing that works to my benefit is that those guys are competing to find out who can do what situational deal better than the others. We go into a week of preparation with that on their minds: They're competing against each other and they are getting better. They will earn whatever situation during the course of practice. If one fits the situation – third down, goal line – better than the others, then you'll see that guy in that situation."

Given Creer's imposing yards-per-carry average, it's no surprise that many Vol fans are eager to see him get a lot more touches in the second half of the season. That isn't one of Drayton's main priorities, however.

"I have three running backs who, when things are going right, are all really good," the Vol aide said. "It's not a matter of those guys getting touches. It's a matter of getting the offense going the way it needs to be going."

To date, "getting the offense going" has been a study in futility. The Vols rank near the bottom of the SEC in every offensive category. So, what can UT's running backs do to help?

"We can continue to focus in on our responsibilities – being disciplined in our footwork, disciplined in our landmarks, running the ball hard, being able to break tackles and make people miss," Drayton said. "It's a team sport. In order for a running back to have success everybody's got to be clicking on all cylinders."

Lately, the Vols are about four cylinders short.

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