Spring review: RBs

The departure of Arian Foster, No. 2 on the program's career rushing list, did not leave Tennessee's tailback cupboard bare. Quite the contrary, in fact.

Rising senior Montario Hardesty, rising sophomore Tauren Poole and mid-term freshman Toney Williams exhibited in spring practice that they are capable backs, although there does not appear to be a Jamal Lewis or Travis Stephens in the group.

After charting every play of every major scrimmage (April 4, April 10 and the Orange & White Game), I went back and compiled the rushing and receiving stats for each of Tennessee's running backs. Although some of the carries came against first-team defenders, some against second-team defenders and some against third-team defenders, these stats are fairly revealing.

For instance:

Hardesty, operating mainly against the No. 1 defense, rushed 29 times for 112 yards and two touchdowns. That's an average of 3.86 yards per carry – essentially matching the 3.8 mark he has compiled in actual games.

Poole, working mostly against second-team defenders, rushed 43 times for 239 yards and two touchdowns in the three major scrimmages. That's an average of 5.56 yards per carry, a significant upgrade from the 3.9 mark he compiled in mopup roles as a freshman last fall. Was he that much better this spring or was the second-team defense he faced that much worse? Only time will tell.

Williams was one of the most pleasant surprises of spring practice. Competing mostly against second- and third-team defenders, the 6-0, 218-pound rookie carried 41 times for 192 yards and two touchdowns in scrimmage action. That's an average of 4.68 yards per carry. He showed surprising agility and quickness for his size.

Walk-on C.J. Jackson, operating almost exclusively against third-team defenders, carried 12 times for 50 yards and a touchdown. That's an average of 4.17 yards per carry.

Scholarship fullbacks Kevin Cooper and Austin Johnson did not get a carry in the three major scrimmages but were active as receivers out of the backfield.

Johnson caught seven balls for 27 yards, with one of his catches coming after he lined up at a wide receiver spot. This suggests he could give the Vols some unaccustomed versatility at the fullback spot. Cooper caught three passes for 8 yards and also seemed very comfortable as a receiver.

Tennessee's new pro-style offense is geared toward getting the ball to the playmakers in space, so it's important that all three scholarship tailbacks are capable of catching the ball. All three appear to be.

Williams converted four receptions into 34 yards, an average of 8.5 per catch. Hardesty, who runs very good routes and split out wide on occasion, caught three balls for 28 yards, an average of 9.3 yards per reception. Poole caught just two balls for 12 yards in the scrimmages but showed in practice sessions that he might be the most dynamic of the three in terms of big-play potential.

Tennessee's running stable gets even more help in August, when heralded signees Bryce Brown and David Oku join the mix.


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