Hardesty hardest to tackle

Watching senior tailback Montario Hardesty run the ball in the scrimmage segment of Friday night's Tennessee football practice, you got the idea he was in the zone.

And you were exactly right.

Hardesty was in the same zone running scheme, as a matter of fact, that made him an elite prospect as a high school senior four years ago back in New Bern, N.C.

"It's just like the zone running scheme I played in back in high school," Hardesty said, "so I'm really happy about that."

Hardesty ran for 1,987 yards as a high school junior and 2,002 as a senior. Thus, seeing new UT offensive coordinator Jim Chaney install a run scheme similar to New Bern's was like the answer to a prayer.

"Our offense is definitely a zone running scheme – running the inside and outside zone," Hardesty said. "I think this is more outside zone. I had a couple of (good gains) in the outside zone last year, and that's the system I came from in high school, so that's something I'm definitely happy we're going back to doing more. Last year we were more of an inside zone-running team, just running the outside zone here and there."

Hampered by a stress fracture in his leg last season, Hardesty averaged just 3.6 yards per carry. He probably averaged around 10 yards per carry Friday night, breaking numerous tackles en route to several runs of 20 yards or more. With a group of new coaches to impress, he felt some pressure to play his best.

"We're all being judged right now," he said. "I believe it's definitely important to practice hard because they haven't seen us play before."

A modest guy, Hardesty grinned broadly when complimented about his big night but quickly passed the credit to others.

"The O-line opened up the holes for me. I can't do anything without the guys up front," he said. "The O-line and tight ends and receivers were blocking out there, so when I get to the second level I've got to make a guy miss. At some point you've got to go out there and do your thing. I was just trying to do my best to finish."

Hardesty was part of a 2008 offense that was arguably the worst Tennessee has fielded in decades. Still, roughly 2,000 fans braved cold and drizzle to watch Friday's practice, cheering loudly at every opportunity.

"It feels good to know we've got support like that," Hardesty said. "We want to come out and show them how we're supposed to play football around here."

Hardesty certainly showed them how football is supposed to be played Friday night. He showed his head coach, too.

"Hardesty had a ton of yards," Lane Kiffin noted. "He had a lot of long runs. I thought the guys did well for him upfront."

After three injury-plagued seasons as a reserve tailback, Hardesty is down to his final opportunity to embellish his legacy. He seems determined to make the most of it.

"It's a great story any time you have a guy that has worked so hard in the offseason," Kiffin said. "I think he was one of the first guys to buy into what we were doing, out there leading the group in offseason conditioning. He really has worked hard for this, really has studied the system.

"He really has not had mental breaks and he's really attacking this thing very seriously. It's really good when a guy does that, and it shows out there on the field. That builds up your whole team – seeing a guy doing things right and it paying off."

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