Rotation over rhythm

During his days as offensive coordinator at Villanova, Dave Clawson essentially saddled up one horse (Brian Westbrook) and rode him for all four quarters.

As a result, Westbrook was the first player in NCAA history to register 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season (1998). And, thanks to 725 career rushes, 219 receptions and a slew of kickoff returns, he remains the all-time NCAA leader in all-purpose yards (9,512).

Given the incredible success Clawson had with a workhorse back at Villanova, you'd expect him to settle on one tailback in his first season as coordinator at Tennessee. Instead, he is using a three-man rotation of senior Arian Foster, junior Montario Hardesty and sophomore Lennon Creer.

Over the past three weeks Creer has carried 22 times for 77 yards, Foster 20 times for 64 yards and Hardesty 20 times for 47 yards. That's impressive balance – each guy averaging 7.0 carries per game – but unimpressive production. The cumulative average is just 3.0 yards per carry during that span.

For what it's worth, Foster averaged 17.5 carries per game en route to 1,193 rushing yards in 2007. He carried 20-plus times in five outings. Conversely, his busiest games this fall have been 18 carries (vs. Northern Illinois), 14 carries (vs. Florida), 13 carries (vs. UCLA) and 12 (vs. UAB).

With Tennessee ranking 11th among the 12 SEC teams in rushing offense, some observers blame the lack of production on the fact the Vols rarely give one tailback enough carries for him to find a rhythm.

Showing surprising candor, Clawson concedes that the point has validity.

"There's definitely some truth to that," he said, subsequently adding: "I think there is some merit to the fact that when you play three you don't really let one get into a rhythm and get into the flow of the game."

Tennessee briefly abandoned its three-back attack two weeks ago, giving Creer 12 consecutive carries in the fourth quarter against Mississippi State. He responded by single-handedly moving the Vols 51 yards for a touchdown, posting gains of 10, 10, 9 and 6 yards along the way.

Clawson conceded that the Mississippi State game was an exception to the norm in that "we kept giving Lennon the ball over and over and over and let him get in a rhythm."

Given the success Westbrook enjoyed at Villanova, Foster enjoyed in 2007 and Creer enjoyed vs. Mississippi State, you wonder why Tennessee is reluctant to settle on one tailback this fall.

"We have three guys that deserve to play, and you could argue that we have four with (freshman) Tauren Poole," Clawson said. "If a guy works hard all week in practice and does what you want him to do, we're going to give him an opportunity to perform on Saturday."

Noting that "a lot of teams" rotate their tailbacks, the coordinator says there are some notable benefits.

"The good thing is, you keep them all fresh," he said. "You always have fresh legs going in there. No question, we have three guys who deserve to play and are talented enough to play."

Still, many observers wonder if the ground game might be more productive with UT giving one guy enough carries to establish a rhythm, as it did with Foster last year.

Tennessee's head coach laughed at the suggestion.

"Then tomorrow, when one guy plays, they'll say, 'Well, you need to be playing three guys.' I can't win that battle," Phillip Fulmer said.

Like Clawson, the head coach believes Foster, Hardesty and Creer earn their carries on the practice field.

"All of them practice hard. All of them go to class. All of them do what they're supposed to do. All of them have ability," Fulmer said. "Some of the abilities are different than others, so we try to make sure they get in the game to (best utilize) what they do in the passing game, a screen, protection or whatever."

The three-back attack didn't work too well last weekend vs. Alabama. Foster (6 carries for 21 yards), Hardesty (8 for 12) and Creer (3 for 7) combined for just 40 yards and a 2.3 per-carry average in a 29-9 loss.

"When you don't run the ball – like we didn't against Alabama – it doesn't look so hot," Fulmer conceded. "Even though the results didn't show it in the numbers, Arian and Montario both had outstanding games for us."

Typically, Fulmer's better teams have relied on one tailback to carry most of the load. Jay Graham had 272 rushes in 1995, Jamal Lewis 232 in 1997, Travis Henry 253 in 2000, Travis Stephens 291 in 2001 and Foster 245 last year. No Vol back is on pace to carry more than 130 times this year.

Asked if he would prefer to have one guy get most of the touches, Fulmer grinned smugly.

"I'd like to have one that rushes about 20 times, makes 150 yards," he said. "Then the next rushes about 10 and gets about 85, and then the young one gets in and gets five or six carries for 50.

"That's my preference."

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