With Foster and Creer gone, Hardesty is the odds-on favorite for the starting role this season. That doesn't mean he'll play a workhorse role, however. Hardesty's carries likely will be limited by two factors:
1. His willingness to run over would-be tacklers affects his durability.
2. His backups deserve a chance to play, too.
Heralded freshman Bryce Brown, rated America's No. 1 overall prospect by Scout.com last winter, showed tremendous power in last Saturday's scrimmage, breaking numerous tackles en route to 28 yards on just four carries. He also is Tennessee's fastest back, with a reported 4.3 clocking over 40 yards. Unofficially, Brown averaged 5.0 yards per carry (129 yards on 26 attempts) in UT's three full-scale scrimmages this preseason, despite a sore hip. He is effective running inside or outside and, packing 218 pounds on a 6-0 frame, has the heft to be a superior pass protector. Tennessee's staff already has put in some plays specifically for Brown, so look for him to see significant action this fall.
Based on his dynamic work in scrimmages, sophomore Tauren Poole deserves several touches per game, as well. Poole gained 265 yards on 29 scrimmage rushes, a whopping 9.1 per-carry average. He had the preseason's longest run (70 yards) and caught the ball well out of the backfield. He is a surprisingly good pass protector at 5-10 and 188 pounds, mostly because of his fiercely competitive nature.
The fourth guy in the picture is freshman David Oku. Rated America's No. 9 tailback prospect last winter by Scout.com, Oku is a lot like Poole in terms of size (5-10, 186) and running style. He averaged 4.1 yards per carry (165 yards on 40 attempts) in preseason scrimmages but coughed up three fumbles. He lined up as a wide receiver several times in the final scrimmage and, given UT's dwindling depth at wideout, may get more touches on receptions than handoffs this fall.
Tennessee averaged a paltry 34 rushing attempts per game in 2008. Based on the new staff's commitment to the running game, fans can expect roughly 50 rushes per game in 2009.
How will those 50 rushes be divided among the four tailbacks?
Best guess: Hardesty 20 per game, Brown 15 per game, Poole 10 per game, Oku five per game.