Talent at tailback

Running backs coach Eddie Gran may have the easiest job on Tennessee's football staff ... or maybe it's the hardest.

Gran's job is easy in that he's coaching four of the most talented athletes on the Volunteer roster in senior Montario Hardesty, sophomore Tauren Poole, freshmen Bryce Brown and David Oku.

Gran's job is hard in that he must determine which of the four will start Sept. 5 against Western Kentucky and how he'll divide the carries among them throughout the 2009 season.

If Gran is worried, though, he masks it awfully well. Establishing a pecking order is the last thing on his mind.

"Right now I don't even worry about that.... That always takes care of itself," he said. "Somewhere down the road that always takes care of itself."

Here's a look at his options:

Hardesty (6-0, 215) has the most experience, the most power and probably the best receiving skills out of the backfield. He also has durability issues, however, and a mere 3.8 yards-per-carry career rushing average. He made a nifty 15-yard run in Saturday's scrimmage but his other four carries produced minus-1 yard.

Brown (6-0, 218) is a younger version of Hardesty - virtually identical in size and similar in the way he blends speed and power. He has zero college experience, however, and fumbled twice on the first day of preseason practice. Brown ran for 37 yards in the first scrimmage but six of his 10 carries gained 2 yards or less.

Poole (5-10, 190) is probably the most instinctive and the best of the bunch at following blocks. He knows when to pause and when to explode through an opening. He wasn't terribly productive in mop-up action last fall but turned some heads by rushing for 141 yards on just eight carries in Saturday's scrimmage.

Oku (5-10, 186) is a younger version of Poole - a small, quick back with explosive acceleration and cutting ability. He rushed for 38 yards in the scrimmage, with five of his nine runs gaining 7 yards or more. He had a 40-yard burst nullified by a penalty but also had two carries that lost yardage.

Some coaches like to make one tailback a workhorse. Some like to rotate two tailbacks. Some utilize a three- or four-back committee. Gran says he has no preference for how many tailbacks UT plays this fall.

"I don't at all," he said. "With the guys we have, we can play two at a time, and everybody's going to get their touches."

Although Brown and Oku were ballyhooed recruits, neither appears to be a prima donna. Both exhibit a willingness to work hard and accept coaching.

"They bring their hard hat everyday, and that's what you love about them," Gran said. "Sometimes you don't get that from guys that got recruited very highly."

Historically, young backs have had to wait their turn at Tennessee because they lacked pass-protecting skills. Gran says he has no worries about Brown or Oku in that regard.

"No, that's why you've got coaching," the Vol aide said. "You've got to be able to coach 'em up, put 'em in a position to succeed. They're doing a fine job with pass protection."

With Hardesty healthy, Poole off to a sizzling start and the two freshmen making strides on a daily basis, Gran feels blessed.

"Between Montario, Tauren and those two guys (freshmen) right there, I can't ask for a better group," he said.

It's such a good group, in fact, that determining who takes the first snap Sept. 5 is going to be a real challenge. Still, Gran isn't concerned.

"Somebody will show up," he said. "Somebody's going to move over the top."

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