Old dog vs. young pups

You wait four years for your turn as the No. 1 tailback, only to discover your first-team job is being threatened by the arrival of two elite running back prospects.

Some guys would be angry. Not Tennessee's Montario Hardesty. The 6-0, 212-pound fifth-year senior welcomes the competition from Bryce Brown and David Oku, rated No. 1 and No. 9, respectively, among America's tailback prospects by Scout.com last winter.

"Let's go, man!" Hardesty said, smiling enthusiastically. "Whatever will make the team better. We're going to come out in practice and get it. They're going to be fighting for playing time and I'm fighting to stay on the field, so we'll get down to work."

That Hardesty would be so philosophical about having to fend off the heralded rookies is not surprising. He has shown a philosophical nature throughout his UT career - diligently fighting back from injuries and quietly toiling as backup to Arian Foster.

Brown (6-0, 215) rushed for 1,872 yards and 30 touchdowns last fall at Wichita East High School. Oku (5-10, 186) rushed for 1,905 yards and 23 TDs for Carl Albert High of Midwest City, Okla.

Hardesty believes Brown and Oku will be productive players for the Vols ... but not necessarily this season. He's preparing for 2009 as if he will be a workhorse back.

"I'm trying to get in the best shape I've been in, so I've been out here doing some extra stuff," he said. "I try to make sure I'm at the front of every line (for practice drills). I'm just trying to build up myself so that if I need to carry the ball 25 or 30 times (per game), I'll be ready."

A proven team player, Hardesty rarely speaks of personal goals. Even when asked about them, he eventually turns the topic to team goals.

"I want to get over 1,000 yards rushing and I want to lead the SEC in touchdowns," he said. "But the No. 1 goal is definitely to get to the SEC Championship Game, and I believe we have the talent here to do it."

Getting to the SEC Championship Game will be a daunting task. To do so, the Vols probably would have to defeat the Florida Gators, who return virtually everyone from last year's national championship team. Still, Hardesty believes the Vols are capable of making it to the league title game.

"I think we can," he said. "Last year we definitely struggled on offense but the year before, with the same players, we did good. Last year is behind us now. We've got brand new coaches and a whole different scheme.

"We've still got a lot of talent on our offense. Upfront, we have four great offensive linemen that have been playing a lot. We've got a fine group of young receivers. We've got a quarterback that can get the job done, and we can run the ball. I definitely think our offense will be much improved."

Hardesty bases this optimism on how well the attack unit moved the ball in the latter stages of spring practice.

"We had much better competition with the defense," he noted. "Last spring the defense whupped us up and down the field all spring. This year we had competition going. We was winning some stuff and they was winning some stuff. That was definitely the best thing to come out of spring."

Actually, that was the second-best thing to come out of spring. The BEST THING was that the offensive players actually understood their assignments. That was not the case a year ago.

"Everybody came out of spring knowing the whole offense," Hardesty said. "Everybody stopped messing up by the second week. We put the whole offense in, and we looked real good against our defense. We hadn't been doing that (in years past)."

Even facing stiff challenges from Brown and Oku, Hardesty is upbeat and relaxed these days. He's especially eager to show what he can do in the Vols' new zone-running scheme.

"I love it. I love it, man," he said, literally gushing. "It's the same scheme I ran in high school. You hit the line running, and the holes open up. I love it ... love it."


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