Creer's shifting gears

After carrying the football just 15 times in Tennessee's first six games, he carried 17 times in Game 7. How's that for trending upward?

Like his carry count, Vol tailback Lennon Creer's stock is rising these days. He looked so good in rushing for a team-high 68 yards last Saturday against Mississippi State that he carried all 12 times on Tennessee's final touchdown drive.

"I thought Lennon played well that last drive. He made some guys miss," offensive coordinator Dave Clawson said. "We were physical up front and we pushed the pile. But the way people play run defense, there's going to be an unblocked hat, and the difference between a two-yard play and a 12-yard play is the back's ability to make the guy miss. Two or three times there was an unblocked guy in the hole and he made a nice cut, and we just kept rolling with him."

Phillip Fulmer was pleased with Creer's play, as well, although the Vols' head coach says Creer remains the No. 3 tailback behind Arian Foster and Montario Hardesty.

"Lennon did a nice job in the ball game," Fulmer said. "We're going to play all of those tailbacks. We need to keep that rotation. That's when we've done our best (when they keep backs fresh)."

Creer, a 6-1, 210-pound sophomore from Tatum, Texas, might be Tennessee's most dangerous rusher. Now that his pass-protection and pass-receiving skills are improving he's closing the gap on Foster and Hardesty.

"They've got to be complete in their game," Fulmer noted. "That would be route-running and protecting, as well as running the football. Lennon has some work to do to be as complete from a couple of those perspectives as we would like for him to be.... Lennon is doing a good job working to get where he needs to be. He's obviously a gifted ball-carrier.

Against Mississippi State, Foster played the first series, Hardesty the second and Creer the third. The Vol staff expects to utilize a similar strategy this weekend.

"Arian will start, Montario will get a series early and Lennon will get a series early," Clawson noted.

Foster is trying to become UT's career rushing leader. Hardesty is trying to make up for lost time after seeing his first three seasons hampered by injuries. Creer is trying to avoid getting lost in the shuffle. Each of the three is capable of being The Guy.

"I think it's a good problem that we have that type of depth," Clawson said. "When they're out there they need to be productive, or the next series another guy will be out there."

Based on Creer's showing last weekend, it's likely he'll be "out there" a lot more in the weeks to come. He is an exceptional talent.

"He just has really, really quick feet," Clawson said. "He has the ability to what we call 'jump-cut.' If there's a guy in the hole, he has the ability to jump-cut it and get vertical in the next step. A lot of backs when they see that cut, they kind of wind it back. But he has the ability to jump-cut it and get vertical. That's something you can't teach. You either have that ability or you don't."

Creer averaged a team-best 5.9 yards per carry in 2007 but got just 36 rushes in 14 games, an average of around 2½ carries per contest. This year he's averaging 5.8 per carry on 4½ rushes per game.

"He's a young running back who didn't play a lot last year, and every time he gets out there and gets another rep I think we're better for it," Clawson said.

Creer seemed to get more comfortable and more productive with each carry vs. Mississippi State.

"He really got into a flow," Clawson said. "We ran a lot of the same plays over and over with him, and I think he got a feel for where the cut was and how the defense was pursuing. He made some really nice runs.

"He saw vertical seams and he took it and he hit that thing north and south, and he had some productive runs. A guy like Lennon you think of more as a speed guy, but he's really an effective runner between the tackles."

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